Outline of Complaint Process
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission acts as a neutral fact-finder. It represents neither party in the investigation and determination of discriminatory actions.
Beginning the Complaint Process
When the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) receives a signed or verified discrimination complaint, it is reviewed. This is to determine whether the agency has jurisdiction over the complaint. The ICRC is a neutral fact-finder and represents neither party.
A complaint must be filed with the ICRC within 300 days of the last alleged incident. If the complaint meets all requirements, it is assigned a CP # and, if applicable, an EEOC#. A copy is mailed to the Complainant. Another copy is served on the Respondent (the person(s) or organization named in the complaint). All future inquiries to the ICRC about the complaint should have the CP# included.
All parties will be served with a copy of the complaint usually within 5 days from the date the ICRC receives a signed complaint. Both parties will also receive a questionnaire to complete within thirty (30) days. The purpose of the questionnaire is to get the specific reason and type of discrimination alleged. Both parties are encouraged to provide any relevant documents, video, or audio recordings. Respondents may answer the questionnaire or submit a position statement. It is very important to answer the questionnaire thoroughly. If help is needed to complete the form or to answer questions, please call or stop by the ICRC office.
Either party has one opportunity to request a two-week extension. Do this by calling the ICRC at 1-800-457-4416 or 515-281-4121. Extensions beyond two weeks will not be granted without extreme circumstances. This is to ensure the complaint moves through the process as speedily as possible.
Screening The Complaint
After the ICRC receives all responses, or when 30 days have passed, the collected information is reviewed by a screener. If the collected information indicates a reasonable possibility of a probable cause determination, the complaint will be "screened in." The ICRC uses the following standard when screening cases:
- If the information indicates a “reasonable possibility of a probable cause determination or the legal issues in the complaint need development” the Commission will “screen in” a case for further investigation. Iowa Admin. Code r. 161—3.12(1)(f).
- During the screening stage, the Commission draws all “rational, reasonable, and otherwise permissible” inferences in Complainant’s favor. See Phillips v. Covenant Clinic, 625 N.W.2d 714, 718 (Iowa 2001) (quoting Butler v. Hoover Nature Trail, Inc., 530 N.W.2d 85, 88 (Iowa Ct. App. 1994)).
- Importantly, the Commission does not evaluate credibility at the screening stage and instead evaluates only whether the stated facts create a “reasonable possibility” for a probable cause finding. The Commission relies in part on its own experience and expertise with the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), while remaining mindful that many cases turn on circumstantial—rather than direct—evidence of discrimination. Ritz v. Wapello Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, 595 N.W.2d 786, 791 (Iowa 1999).
What is Probable Cause?
A finding of probable cause means that there is enough evidence to support a reasonable belief that the Iowa Civil Rights Act has been violated. The standard used by the ICRC to define “probable cause” is:
- Probable Cause exists if there are reasonable grounds for believing discrimination has occurred. Wilson v. Hayes, 464 N.W.2d 250, 261-62 (Iowa 1990) (citing 52 Am.Jur.2d Malicious Prosecution §51 at 219).
- A determination of probable cause is made after an investigation and is based on “facts and circumstances that would be sufficient to induce a reasonable belief in the truth of the [claim].” In re Det. of Mead, 790 N.W.2d 104, 111 (Iowa 2010), rehearing denied (Dec. 10, 2010).
- See, also, Shaul v. Brown, 28 Iowa 37, 47, 4 Am. Rep. 151 (Iowa 1869) (stating, “Without entering at length into the discussion, we may remark that the question of probable cause in every case involves first the ascertainment of the facts from the evidence, and then the application of the law to the facts ascertained.”).
- Neither the Iowa Code nor the Iowa Administrative Code define “probable cause” or provide guidance on making a probable cause determination. Klein v. Dubuque Human Rights Commission, 829 N.W.2d 190 (Iowa Ct. App. 2013).
- Black’s Law Dictionary defines the term variously as “having more evidence than against[, and a] reasonable ground for belief in the existence of facts warranting the proceedings complained of.” Id. (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 1081 (5th ed.)).
- The test for probable cause is whether there are reasonable grounds to believe the assertion. Children v. Burton, 331 N.W.2d 673, 679 (Iowa 1983).
If further investigation is not warranted, the complaint is administratively closed. The Complainant has the right to request reconsideration as explained in the closure letter.
If further investigation is warranted, the parties will be offered an opportunity to take part in “mediation.”
Mediation gives the parties the opportunity to resolve the complaint before investigation. It is a voluntary, confidential process that is free of charge to the parties. The ICRC provides an experienced, trained mediator to assist the parties in resolving the issues.
If mediation fails or is declined, Respondents are sent an Informal Records Request. This is a request for more specific documents related to the issues identified in the screening. The Respondent will have 30 days to provide a response. Once the 30 days have expired, the complaint will be assigned to an investigator.
Initiating a Lawsuit
Once the complaint has been on file for 60 days, the Complainant may choose to begin a lawsuit in state district court. To do this, the Complainant must request, in writing, a “right-to-sue” letter from the ICRC. Before asking for a right-to-sue letter, it is advisable to consult with an attorney because:
- The ICRC requires that a lawsuit must be filed within 90 days of the date the ICRC issues the right-to-sue letter if the Complainant intends to pursue the complaint in district court.
- When the ICRC issues a “right-to-sue” letter, they administratively close the complaint. This removes the complaint and its investigation from the ICRC. No further action is taken by the ICRC.
A number of factors determine how long the investigation will take:
- The complexity of the facts.
- Legal issues presented in the complaint.
- The cooperation and availability of the parties and witnesses.
The ICRC attempts to complete investigations within 60 days from the date it was assigned to the investigator. The goal is to complete the investigation within 9 months from the date the complaint is filed.
During the investigation, an ICRC investigator will:
- Interview the Complainant and any relevant witnesses, including the Respondent.
- Collect additional records if necessary.
- Analyze all the collected information and make a recommendation as to the outcome of the case.
The investigator can recommend either:
- Administrative Closure, which will be processed the same way as a screened-out complaint. The case is administratively closed.
- A Probable Cause or No Probable Cause finding in the case. The case is then forwarded to an administrative law judge from the Department of Inspections and Appeals. The judge will review the case and decide whether probable cause or no probable cause exists to believe that discrimination occurred.
If the administrative law judge finds probable cause, the complaint will move to conciliation. A conciliator (a staff member who has not previously worked on the complaint), is assigned to the case. This person assists the parties as they try to reach a settlement. The ICRC will advocate on behalf of the Complainant. They will also seek remedies designed to address the discriminatory practice through such things as policy changes, or training and education.
If conciliation fails, the complaint will be reviewed to determine whether it should proceed to a public hearing. If the complaint is selected for public hearing:
- An administrative law judge, different from the previous one, will preside over the case.
- A representative will represent the ICRC and the Complainant (who may also have private counsel at his/her expense).
- A hearing will be held in accordance with the “Iowa Administrative Procedure Act,” and evidence will be presented from both parties.
The standard of proof in an administrative hearing is the Preponderance of the Evidence, meaning "more likely than not."
The administrative law judge will review the case to determine, based on the preponderance of evidence presented, whether or not discrimination occurred. If the complaint is not selected for a public hearing, the complaint will be administratively closed. The Complainant may request a “right-to-sue” letter within two years of the administrative closure.
Similarities to a Civil Trial
- Standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence, i.e. "more likely than not."
- Discovery is conducted by both parties. It can include depositions, interrogatories, and requests for the production of documents.
- Evidence (testimony/documents) is presented in much the same manner as in a civil trial, i.e. by the attorneys/witnesses. However, the rules of evidence are relaxed and hearsay may be presented by either side.
- Testimony is sworn and the hearing is recorded. Both sides are given the opportunity to examine witnesses and present arguments. This may be done either orally or in writing, or both, as the case proceeds.
- As in a jury-waived case, the judge should ordinarily receive all evidence that is not clearly inadmissible and can be relied upon to differentiate between relevant evidence and irrelevant evidence in deciding the case. Most objections are not ruled upon but simply noted in the record. The objections do serve the purpose of informing the judge that the party objecting to the evidence sees a problem with that evidence.
- Agencies must give effect to the rules of privilege recognized by law.
- Unlike a civil trial, the outcome of the public hearing is not just a resolution of a dispute between private parties. The ICRC represents the public interest in eliminating and remedying discrimination. Therefore, when discrimination is found, the remedies required are not only directed at making the complainant whole; they are to eliminate the practice of discrimination altogether through equitable remedies.
The ICRC's broad authority to remedy violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act is provided in the Iowa Civil Rights Act:
If, after taking into consideration all the evidence at a hearing, the ICRC determines that the Respondent has engaged in a discriminatory or unfair practice, the ICRC "will issue an order requiring the Respondent to stop the discriminatory or unfair practice and to take the necessary remedial action as in the judgment of the ICRC will carry out purposes of this Chapter."
216.15.8 Available Remedies
a. For the purposes of this subsection and pursuant to the provisions of this chapter “remedial action" includes but is not limited to the following:
- Hiring, reinstatement, or upgrading of employees with or without pay. Interim earned income and unemployment compensation shall operate to reduce the pay otherwise allowable.
- Admission or restoration of individuals to a labor organization, admission to or participation in a guidance program, apprenticeship training program, on-the-job training program or other occupational training or retraining program, with the utilization of objective criteria in the admission of individuals to such programs.
- Admission of individuals to a public accommodation or an educational institution.
- Sale, exchange, lease, rental, assignment or sublease of real property to an individual.
- Extension to all individuals of the full and equal enjoyment of the advantages, facilities, privileges, and services of the respondent denied to the complainant because of the discriminatory or unfair practice.
- Reporting as to the manner of compliance.
- Posting notices in conspicuous places in the respondent's place of business in form prescribed by the commission and inclusion of notices in advertising material.
- Payment to the complainant of damages for an injury caused by the discriminatory or unfair practice which damages shall include but are not limited to actual damages, court costs and reasonable attorney's fees.
b. In addition to the remedies provided in the preceding provisions of this subsection, the commission may issue an order requiring the respondent to cease and desist from the discriminatory or unfair practice and to take such affirmative action as in the judgment of the commission will carry out the purposes of this chapter as follows:
Under certain conditions, the Commission may also report respondents, who are licensed by State or local government agencies, to the licensing agency for any disciplinary action the agency may wish to take. Iowa Code 216.15(8). It may also, under certain conditions, report Respondents, who are under a contract or subcontract with a State or local agency, to that contracting agency for any action, including termination of the contract, that agency may wish to take. Id.
The legislature has imposed the following duty on the Commission with respect to remedies. This is a duty to order the Respondent to take “necessary remedial action”, where what is “necessary” is whatever “remedial action”, as authorized by the Act, the commission determines will “carry out the purposes” of the Act. Therefore, the Commission has broad discretion in determining exactly what remedies are required to carry out the purposes of the Act.