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Delaware Technical and Community College v. State, Human Relations Commission

Superior Court of Delaware

May 17, 2017


          Submitted: March 13, 2017

         Upon Motion to Dismiss Appeal GRANTED

         Upon Motion to Stay Administrative Proceedings DENIED AS MOOT

          Margaret M. DiBianca, Esq., Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, and Elizabeth Y. Olsen, Esq., Delaware Technical and Community College, Dover, Delaware, Attorneys for Delaware Technical and Community College.

          Zoe Plerhoples, DAG and Laura Gerard, DAG, Attorneys for Delaware State Human Relations Commission and Delaware Department of State, Division of Human Relations.

          Neilson C. Himelein, Esq., Community Legal Aid Society, Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Karin Saunders.




         Karin Saunders is a student at the Owens Campus of Delaware Technical and Community College ("Del-Tech"). On May 20, 2016, Ms. Saunders filed a complaint against Del-Tech pursuant to Delaware's Equal Accommodations Law ("DEAL")[1] with the Delaware Department of State, Division of Human Relations ("Division"). Ms. Saunders alleged that Del-Tech violated DEAL by refusing to allow her to attend classes with her qualified service animal. In response, Del-Tech filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Saunders's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Del-Tech argued that the complaint was untimely under the statutory deadline.[2]

         By Decision dated December 6, 2016, the State Human Relations Commission ("Commission") denied Del-Tech's motion to dismiss Ms. Saunders's complaint ("Commission Decision").[3] On January 17, 2017, Del-Tech filed an appeal from the Commission Decision in Superior Court, asserting that the Commission committed legal error in denying the motion to dismiss. On January 20, 2017, three days later, Del-Tech filed a Motion to Stay proceedings before the Commission pending resolution of the appeal.

         Upon initial consideration of Del-Tech's request for relief, this Court noticed that the Division, the Comission, and Ms. Saunders were identified as "Appellees" on Del-Tech's notice of appeal. However, the docket did not reflect that these parties were served process. Accordingly, by letter dated January 24, 2017, this Court requested that Del-Tech serve process on all parties with interest in this case to ensure proper notice and an opportunity to respond.

         On February 13, 2017, after service of process was complete, the State appeared on behalf of the Division and Commission. The State filed a Motion to Dismiss Del-Tech's appeal and a response in opposition to Del-Tech's Motion to Stay. On March 3, 2017, Ms. Saunders filed a response in support of the State's Motion to Dismiss. On March 13, 2017, Del-Tech filed a response in opposition to the State's Motion to Dismiss.


         A. Superior Court Civil Rule 72(i)

         This Court's analysis is governed by Superior Court Civil Rule 72.[4] Rule 72(i) provides, in pertinent part:

The Court may order an appeal dismissed, sua sponte, or upon a motion to dismiss by any party. Dismissal may be ordered for untimely filing of an appeal, for appealing an unappealable interlocutory order, . . . for failure to comply with any rule, statute, or order of the Court or for any other reason deemed by the Court to be appropriate.

         B. Rules Of Statutory Interpretation

         Delaware rules of statutory interpretation are well-established and "designed to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislators, as expressed in the statute."[5] The Court must first determine whether the statutory provision is ambiguous.[6] The mere fact that the parties dispute the interpretation of a statute does not render the provision ambiguous.[7] Instead, a statute is ambiguous if it is "reasonably susceptible of two interpretations"[8] or "if a literal reading of the statute would lead to an unreasonable or absurd result not contemplated by the legislature."[9]

         When a statute is unambiguous, statutory construction is unnecessary.[10]Rather, the Court should give the words in the statute their plain meaning.[11]Delaware courts have held that the plain meaning of a statutory term is determined by considering the term in a common or ordinary way.[12] If a statutory provision is ambiguous, the Court must consider the statute as a whole and read each part "in light of the others to produce a harmonious whole."[13] The Court should read ambiguous statutory terms in a way to promote the statute's apparent purpose.[14]

         C. Appellate Procedure Under The Delaware Equal Accommodations Law

         Ms. Saunders filed her complaint against Del-Tech pursuant to DEAL. DEAL is intended to prevent discrimination in places of public accommodation on the basis of race, age, marital status, creed, color, sex, physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin.[15] The statute's purpose is reflected by DEAL's prohibition of discriminatory business practices and the requirement that public facilities implement reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access to all Delaware citizens.[16]

         DEAL authorizes an alleged victim of prohibited discriminatory conduct to file a complaint with the Division.[17] The Division investigates the allegations set forth in the complaint in order to eliminate any discovered discriminatory practice through conciliation between the parties to the action.[18] If the Division is unable to resolve the complaint through conciliation, DEAL requires the Commission to adjudicate the complaint on the merits following an evidentiary hearing.[19]

         The Court's jurisdiction over appeals from the Commission is conferred by statute, [20] subject to the Superior Court Civil Rules and Delaware's Administrative Procedures Act.[21] DEAL authorizes appellate review of a Commission decision for a "party aggrieved by an order for relief under § 4508."[22] DEAL sets forth specific circumstances where the Commission issues an order pursuant to § 4508 affecting the rights of the parties to a dispute. Specifically, the Commission (i) issues an order dismissing the complaint if the Commission determines that the respondent has not engaged in prohibited discriminatory conduct;[23] or (ii) issues an order for relief that contains findings of fact and conclusions of law if the Commission determines that the respondent has engaged in prohibited discriminatory conduct.[24]

         D. Principles Of Appellate Review In Decisional Law

         The right of appeal is generally conditioned upon the entry of a final judgment by the authority with original jurisdiction over the controversy.[25] An appealable final judgment is a non-procedural ruling that relates to the merits of the case by determining the rights and claims of the parties involved.[26] Although "the primary inquiry is 'whether the trial court clearly declared its intention that the order be its final act of the case, '"[27] it is also "essential to the analysis . . . whether the ...

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