STL Post-Dispatch: Suing for discrimination at work gets harder under measure OK’d by Missouri Senate

By Austin Huguelet St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY • After more than 12 hours of debate and filibuster that stretched into the early morning Wednesday, Missouri senators reached a compromise on a proposal that would make it harder for Missourians to sue for workplace discrimination. 

Under a measure given initial approval after midnight, people would have to prove their race, sex or other protected status actually motivated their boss or colleague to mistreat them to win cases like wrongful termination suits. 

Currently, they need only prove their status was a “contributing factor” to prevail in court.

 

For example, if a black plaintiff was fired from a job because of tardiness, but white employees routinely showed up late and weren’t fired, the black employee could contend that race “contributed” to the boss’s decision. 

If the new measure is approved and signed into law, such employees will need to meet a higher standard — they would have to show that race was a “motivating” factor, rather than just a contributing factor.

Farmington Republican Sen. Gary Romine’s original offer would have required plaintiffs to prove their protected status was the sole reason causing their mistreatment firing suits, something Democrats simply couldn’t abide. 

Republicans and business groups presented the measure as an antidote for judicial overreach that has unfairly favored plaintiffs and extorted largely innocent companies. Romine said he was just trying to bring Missouri in line with federal law. 

But Democrats said the burden of proof he proposed would effectively bar discrimination victims from their day in court.  

Bigoted bosses could evade any accusation of discrimination by claiming an employee coming in late was the “motivating factor” for a firing, Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said in initial discussion Monday night.

“This bill is a direct assault on every black person and every woman in this state.” added Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, who is black. “I feel personally attacked, I really do.” 

Progressive groups echoed those concerns in a news conference Tuesday morning. 

“The best way to stop discrimination lawsuits is to stop discriminating,” Empower Missouri executive director Jeanette Mott Oxford said.

State NAACP President Rod Chapel also railed against the House version of the bill, carried by Rep. Kevin Austin, R-Springfield. Pineville Republican Rep. Bill Lant cut Chapel’s mic off during testimony on the bill last month, prompting accusations of blatant racism and an apology by Speaker Todd Richardson the next day.

Schupp tried for a moral victory with an amendment adding gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of statuses protected by the by the Missouri Human Rights Act. 

But the measure, which passed the chamber on the final day of the 2013 session, failed on a 20-10 vote Wednesday morning. 

In the end, Republicans were only willing to move so far.

 

Romine agreed to eliminate a contentious provision shielding state entities, like the University of Missouri System or prisons under legislative investigation for sexual harassment claims, from punitive damages. He even raised the caps the bill imposed on payouts from the biggest companies. 

But Democrats failed to snuff out a ban on suing other employees, meaning suits would have to be filed against companies, and remained ardently opposed.

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation in 2011 and 2012. 

But Republican Gov. Eric Greitens has prioritized making Missouri courts friendlier to business. 

 

“Our judicial system is broken,” he said in his State of the State address last month, “and the trial lawyers who have broken it, well, their time is up.”

Romine’s measure is one of dozens of proposals catering to Greitens’ wishes this session.

It’s also one that could cater to his bottom line. 

The Post-Dispatch reported last month that Romine’s rent-to-own furniture chain has been embroiled in a racial discrimination lawsuit for the past two years. 

The suit alleges that a supervisor at the chain’s Sikeston store used racial slurs against a black account manager and that Romine declined to address complaints.

Romine dismissed the implication of self-dealing, pointing out that he first filed the legislation in December 2014, four months before his company was sued.

Debate stayed largely germane to Schupp’s amendment until around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, when Democratic senators Jacob Hummel of St. Louis and John Rizzo of Kansas City left the floor.

Republican Senators Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit and Caleb Rowden of Columbia discussed Facebook Live logistics and how fast Rowden drives home every night.

Kansas City Senators Jason Holsman, a Democrat, and Ryan Silvey, a Republican, couched Big Lebowski jokes between discussions of the Kansas City Royals, term limits and trout fishing.

Senators returned their seats around 2 a.m. to vote on the compromise. 

The measure, Senate Bill 43, requires House approval and the governor’s signature before becoming law.

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