Outline of Complaint Process

Outline of Complaint Process

1.      After the Commission receives a signed or verified complaint, it is first reviewed to determine whether the agency has jurisdiction over the complaint.  The complaint must meet statutory requirements of the “Iowa Civil Rights Act,” Iowa Code Chapter 216.  A complaint must be filed with the Commission within 300 days of the last alleged discriminatory incident.   If the complaint is timely and alleges acts covered by the ICRA, a copy of the complaint is mailed to the Complainant and Respondent[s] (the person or organization named in the complaint with a violation of Iowa Code Chapter 216).  The complaint is also assigned a CP# and if applicable, an EEOC#. 

All inquiries about the complaint to the Commission should be by complaint number (CP#).


2.      In addition to copies of the complaint, both Complainant and Respondent are sent questionnaires regarding the complaint and any relevant background information relevant to the complaint.  The questionnaires are tailored to the specific basis and type of discriminatory act alleged.  

If a party needs assistance completing the questionnaire or has questions regarding their response, they should contact the Commission for assistance by either calling the agency or coming into the office.

3.      Respondents may answer the questionnaire or submit a position statement.  Both parties are encouraged to provide any relevant documents, video or audio recordings.  The parties are each given thirty (30) days to complete the questionnaire.  Either party may request one two week extension by calling the Commission at 1-800-457-4416 or 515-281-4121. Extensions beyond two weeks will not be granted absent exigent circumstances.   This is done to ensure the complaint moves through the process as expeditiously as possible.

It is very important to answer the questionnaire thoroughly.


4.      After the Commission receives all parties’ responses to the questionnaires or the 30 days has passed, the collected information is reviewed by a screener.   The complaint will be screened in when the collected information indicates a reasonable possibility of a probable cause determination.  The Commission uses the following standard when screening cases: 

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission issues screening decisions based on the information collected to date. 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).

a.   If further investigation is not warranted, the complaint is administratively closed. The complainant has the right to request reconsideration which is explained in the closure letter.

b.      If further investigation is warranted, the parties will be given an opportunity to participate in “mediation.” Mediation allows the parties to resolve the complaint prior to investigation.  It is a voluntary, confidential process that is free of charge to the parties.  The Commission provides an experienced, trained mediator to assist the parties in resolving the issues.


c.       Once the complaint has been on file for 60 days, the Complainant has the option of removing their complaint from the Civil Rights Commission and its investigatory process, to commence a lawsuit in state district court.   A Complainant must request, in writing, a “right-to-sue” letter from the Commission.  When the Commission issues the “right-to-sue” letter, the Commission administratively closes the complaint and will take no further action on the complaint. It is advisable to consult with an attorney before asking for a right-to-sue letter because the ICRA states that a lawsuit must be filed within 90 days of the date the Commission issues the right-to-sue letter if the Complainant intends to pursue the complaint in district court. 


d.      During the investigation, a Commission investigator will interview the Complainant and any relevant witnesses, including the Respondent.  The investigator may collect additional records if necessary. The investigator will analyze all of the collected information and make a recommendation as to the outcome of the case.  The investigator can recommend Administrative Closure which will be processed the same way as a screened out complaint.  If the investigator recommends either Probable Cause or No Probable cause finding in the case, it will be forwarded to an Administrative Law Judge from the Department of Inspections and Appeals who will review the case and make the determination whether probable cause or no probable cause exists to believe that discrimination occurred.


The standard used by the Commission 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).  In contrast to the preponderance of evidence standard applicable at the public hearing, the test for probable cause is whether there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that the Iowa Civil Rights Act has been violated.   A finding of probable cause means it has been determined, based on our investigation, that there is sufficient evidence to support such a belief.

From the time the Commission receives the complaint to the time the investigation is completed and a finding by the administrative law judge has been made, the Commission is a neutral fact-finder and represents neither party.

5.      If the Administrative Law Judge finds No Probable Cause, the complaint is closed and the Complainant loses his/her right to request a “right-to-sue” letter.   The Complainant can request reconsideration and if the request is denied, the Complainant can appeal the finding to District Court.


6.      If the Administrative Law Judge finds Probable Cause, the complaint will move to conciliation.   A conciliator is assigned to the case (a staff member who has not previously worked on the complaint) and assists the parties in trying to reach a settlement.  At this point, the Commission will advocate on behalf of the Complainant as well as seek remedies designed to address the discriminatory practice through such things as policy changes or training and education. 


7.      If conciliation fails, the complaint will be reviewed to determine whether it should proceed to public hearing. If the complaint is selected for public hearing, another Administrative Law Judge from the Department of Inspection and Appeals will preside over the case.  A representative will represent the Commission 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 preponderance of the evidence, meaning more likely than not.  The Administrative Law Judge will determine whether or not discrimination occurred based on a preponderance of the evidence presented.  If the complaint is not selected for public hearing, the complaint will be administratively closed and the Complainant may request a “right-to-sue” letter within two years of the administrative closure.

Approximate Complaint Processing Timeline

From the date the Commission receives a signed complaint all parties will be served with a copy of the complaint and a questionnaire, usually within 5 days of the date the complaint is filed. 

All parties are provided 30 days from the date on the notification letter to respond.  The parties may also request one 2 week extension.  Absent extenuating circumstances, only one 2 week extension will be granted to each party. The Commission endeavors to screen the complaint within 120 days from the date the complaint is filed.

If the complaint is screened out, the case is administratively closed. If the complaint is screened in, it moves to mediation. Mediation typically takes 30 days to schedule and conduct. If mediation is unsuccessful, the complaint will be assigned to an investigator.

As soon as mediation fails or is declined, Respondents will be sent an Informal Records Request, asking for more specific documents related to the issues identified in screening.  Respondent will have 30 days to provide a response.  Once the 30 days has expired, the complaint will be assigned to an investigator.  A number of factors determine how long the investigation will take including the complexity of the fact and legal issues presented in the complaint and the cooperation and availability of the parties and witnesses.  The Commission attempts to complete investigations within 60 days from the date assigned to the investigator.   The ultimate goal of the Commission is to complete the investigation within 9 months from the date the complaint is filed.

Public Hearing

Similarities to a Civil Trial

a.       Standard of proof is preponderance of the evidence, i.e. more likely than not.

b.      Discovery is conducted by both parties and can include depositions, interrogatories and requests for production of documents. 

c.       Evidence (testimony/documents) presented in much the same manner as in a civil trial, i.e. by the attorneys/witnesses except that the rules of evidence are relaxed and hearsay may be presented by either side.

d.      Testimony is sworn and the hearing is recorded.   Both sides are given the opportunity to examine witnesses and present arguments, either orally or in writing or both as the case proceeds.

e.       As in jury-waived case, the judge should ordinarily receive all evidence, which is not clearly inadmissible and can be relied upon to differentiate between relevant evidence and irrelevant evidence in deciding the case. When you read the transcripts, you'll notice that 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.

f.        Agencies shall give effect to the rules of privilege recognized by law.

g.       Unlike a civil trial, the outcome of public hearing is not just a resolution of a dispute between private parties. The Commission 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, but also at eliminating the practice of discrimination through equitable remedies such as changes in policy, training of decisions makers, supervisory staff or human resources staff or notifying employees of policies and procedures related to complaints of discrimination. 


The Commission's broad authority to remedy violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act is provided in the Iowa Civil Rights Act:

If upon taking into consideration all of the evidence at a hearing, the commission determines that the Respondent has engaged in a discriminatory or unfair practice, the commission...shall issue an order requiring the Respondent to Cease and Desist from the discriminatory or unfair practice and to take the necessary remedial action as in the judgment of the Commission 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:

1.      Hiring, reinstatement or upgrading of employees with or without pay. Interim earned income and unemployment compensation shall operate to reduce the pay otherwise allowable.

2.      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.

3.      Admission of individuals to a public accommodation or an educational institution.

4.      Sale, exchange, lease, rental, assignment or sublease of real property to an individual.

5.      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.

6.      Reporting as to the manner of compliance.

7.      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.

8.      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.