JEFFERSON CITY — Changes to Missouri's employment discrimination law could make it harder for victims to win cases against their former employer and would limit the amount of damages that plaintiffs could take home if a jury found in their favor.
With the legislation nearing final approval in the Senate, business groups and human rights advocates in the state are at odds about what the new laws will mean for businesses and employees.
The legislation would also limit the amount of damages that plaintiffs could win. The proposals would allow plaintiffs to collect back pay, with interest, but would limit punitive damages based on how many people work at the company being sued. The limits range from $50,000 for a company with six to 100 employees to a maximum of $300,000 from companies with 500 or more employees.
The House passed a bill to make the changes last month. The Senate gave first-round approval to similar legislation this past week.
Anti-discrimination advocates say the caps on potential damages would take away the power of judges and juries to decide what award is just after hearing a victim's testimony.
Osage Beach attorney Samuel Trapp said the damage limits would let businesses potentially budget for wrongful termination suits.
"You've established a price for discrimination," he said of the damage limits.
Business groups say capping awards and changing the legal standard in such cases would merely match Missouri's laws to federal standards. The groups say that would give businesses more certainty about the extent to which they could be found liable.
Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, said that that certainty would help draw companies to Missouri from other states in which standards differ from federal law. With those companies, he said, will come jobs.
McCarty disputed the notion that companies would use the damage caps in the legislation to plan the extent to which they would break law.
"I don't think companies would sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis on discrimination," he said.
AIM spokesman Nathan Dampf, said large jury awards in some discrimination cases had made business owners hesitant to make personnel decisions that were in their business' best interest.
"We don't want the employee to not be justly compensated," he said. "But in some of these totally erroneous decisions, you're seeing huge judgments."
Bills in both chambers of the legislature would also change the legal standard people must meet when they sue their employer in state court alleging that they were wrongfully terminated for a discriminatory reason.
Plaintiffs would have to prove that discrimination was a "motivating factor" rather than a "contributing" factor in their firing. A 2007 ruling established the latter criterion as the standard in state courts.
St. Louis attorney Kevin Dolley, who argued the 2007 case to the Missouri Supreme Court, called the proposed changes "an unfortunate step backward."
He said the court had changed the standard because Missouri lawmakers had wanted plaintiffs to have more protections under the state's law.
"They were simply creating the standard that complied with the original drafters' intent which is that there should not be any discrimination in Missouri," he said in an interview last week.
Karen Buschmann, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said the pending law still punishes employers if they allow discrimination in the workplace. She said the laws should be set by elected officials rather than a judge's interpretation.
"The intent (of the pending legislation) is to make Missouri's law outlawing discrimination mirror the federal law," she said. "In the last five to seven years, the courts have absolutely altered our law."
Modifying the law topped a list of half a dozen pro-business changes the Chamber has lobbied legislators to make this session.
Calling the pending legislation "devastating," Mary Ratliff, the NAACP Missouri Conference chair, said changing the law in hopes of spurring job growth was unfair because women, minorities and people with disabilities have to deal with increased intolerance.
"That is a sacrifice that we feel is unacceptable," she said.