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Bates v. Neva

Supreme Court of Montana

December 23, 2014

JIM BATES, Petitioner and Appellan t,
v.
LAURA LEE NEVA, Respondent and Appellee.

Submitted on Briefs: December 12, 2014

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-Second Judicial District, In and For the County of Stillwater, Cause No. DV 12-39 Honorable Brenda Gilbert, Presiding Judge

For Appellant: Jim Bates, self-represented, Fishtail, Montana

For Appellee: Patricia D. Peterman; Michael F. McGuinness, Patten, Peterman, Bekkedahl & Green, PLLC, Billings, Montana

Beth Baker, Justice

¶1 Jim Bates appeals the Twenty-Second Judicial District Court's ruling that the Montana Human Rights Act (MHRA) applies to Laura Lee Neva's claim of sexual harassment in her lease of commercial property from Bates. The issue we address on appeal is whether the MHRA applies to Neva's commercial lease. We conclude that it does and affirm.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶2 In June 2009, Neva approached Bates about leasing a commercial property in Absarokee for an art gallery. The building was not immediately tenantable because it had a leaky roof and other problems. The two came to a verbal agreement: Bates would pay for the materials and make the repairs, while Neva would help with the repairs and would not pay rent until a month after the building's condition permitted the gallery to open for business.

¶3 In July 2009, the two worked together on the repairs. Neva would later testify to numerous instances of inappropriate conduct by Bates during this month, including grabbing Neva's breast, commenting on Neva's underwear, and telephoning Neva to tell her that he was naked. Bates also sent a string of emails to Neva, later admitted into evidence, in which he proposed sexually explicit encounters. Neva eventually told Bates that he was "nothing but a landlord" to her. Bates then stopped making repairs, though the two dispute whether that was because Neva rebuffed his advances or because Neva installed a security system preventing Bates from gaining unfettered access to the building.

¶4 In 2010, Neva filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau, alleging that Bates violated the MHRA by sexually harassing her. In 2011, after a contested hearing, a hearing officer found that Bates had "severe[ly]" and "persistent[ly]" harassed Neva, and that the harassment was "patently unwelcome." Despite these findings, the hearing officer concluded that the harassment occurred in a context that neither the MHRA's public accommodation nor real estate provisions cover. With regard to the MHRA's real estate provisions, the hearing officer declared, "The MHRA does not address illegal discrimination in commercial, as opposed to housing, leases between private individuals."

¶5 Neva appealed the hearing officer's determination to the Montana Human Rights Commission. Examining the text of the MHRA, the Commission concluded that it "prohibits unlawful discrimination in commercial property transactions, as well as all other real estate transactions." Accordingly, the Commission ruled that Neva could proceed with her claim.

¶6 Bates sought judicial review, arguing that the Commission: (1) violated his right to due process by analyzing Neva's action under the MHRA's real estate provisions, and (2) incorrectly interpreted those provisions. Ruling for Bates on the due process argument, the District Court vacated the Commission's decision and reinstated the hearing officer's.

¶7 Neva appealed the District Court's order to this Court and we reversed, concluding that Bates received due process. Bates v. Neva, 2013 MT 246, ¶¶ 19-20, 371 Mont. 466, 308 P.3d 114. We remanded, directing the District Court to resolve the issue that formed the alternate basis for Bates's challenge to the Commission's decision: whether the MHRA's real estate provisions apply to Neva's commercial lease. Bates, ¶ 20.

¶8 On remand, the District Court concluded that the MHRA's real estate provisions prohibit discrimination in commercial real estate transactions. The court entered an order on February 27, 2014, remanding the case to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry's Hearings Bureau for further proceedings, including a determination of damages. Bates appeals the District Court's decision and order, thus presenting to the Court this matter of first impression.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶9 The correct interpretation of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. City of Missoula v. Iosefo, 2014 MT 209, ...


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