Missouri legislators pass workplace discrimination bill

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | 8:55 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — People who file lawsuits claiming they were fired because of discrimination would face a stronger legal standard and be limited in the amount of money they could collect if the governor signs legislation given final legislative approval Wednesday.

The bill would require such plaintiffs who sue their former employers to show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in their dismissal. Missouri law currently requires workers to prove that discrimination was a "contributing" factor, a standard established in a 2007 court ruling.

The legislation also would limit punitive damages, ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 depending on the size of the company. Similar limits would apply to whistle-blowers reporting incidents of discrimination to state authorities if they sue their employer for retaliating against them.

The Missouri House's 93-63 vote on Wednesday was largely along party lines, with several Democrats criticizing the changes. Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said changing the legal definition was a step backward and the legislation would make employers less likely to prevent workplace discrimination.

"By making it a higher threshold, what we are saying is that the state of Missouri is going to tolerate a certain amount of discrimination," he said. "That is a mistake."

Webber offered an amendment that would have added sexual orientation to the types of discrimination that are prohibited under state law, but the amendment was defeated.

Supporters said the legislation simply matches Missouri statutes with federal civil rights laws. Sen. Brad Lager, the bill's sponsor, said in a statement that the bill encourages job creation because the higher standard of proof makes businesses less susceptible to discrimination lawsuits.

"Unfortunately, Missouri courts have drastically changed Missouri employment law over the years," said Lager, R-Savannah. "It is important that the people of Missouri, through their elected representatives, ultimately shape our laws."

The bill, approved last month 25-9 in the Senate, now goes to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. The governor planned to give the bill a "comprehensive review," said his spokesman, Scott Holste.

The legislation was one of six pro-business changes the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry has lobbied legislators to make this session.

Under the legislation, plaintiffs could collect back pay with interest, but additional money damages would be limited. The caps range from $50,000 for a company with six to 100 employees, to a maximum of $300,000 for companies with 500 or more employees.

Anti-discrimination advocates called the caps "devastating," and some have said the limits could be interpreted as a putting a price on discrimination.

Rep. Sylvester Taylor, D-Black Jack, questioned whether the families of discrimination victims would accept a limit on the amount they could recover.

"How would you feel if it was your family?" he asked during House floor debate Wednesday. "How much would you want that lawsuit resolved for?"

Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa, said after the vote that lawmakers included the caps to provide victims justice while giving businesses a chance to correct mistakes.

"The idea is to punish them without driving them out," he said. "If you do it enough times, you're going to be driven out."

After the vote, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Daniel Mehan praised the money caps for both victims and whistle-blowers, saying in a statement that not having the limits in state law has led to "inconsistent" rulings by state courts.

He said the limits would give businesses more certainty, which would improve the state's economy.

"Rather than investing money in frivolous lawsuits, employers will be able to invest more money in creating jobs," Mehan said after the vote.

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Kathy Snowberry April 15, 2011 | 7:25 p.m.

How low do the protections for workers need to go to satisfy these 'businesses'? The caps I can understand, but making it more difficult on the worker to defend their case - when it is already nearly impossible - how is that justifed? These Reps are giving businesses a "chance to correct mistakes."? YA -decades of these anti-discrimination laws being in effect isn't enough.

Maybe the bill was further 'perfected', but as I recall it also removed sexual preference as a protected category. So, in MO a worker can be harassed, held back, even fired ONLY because (s)he is not a hetero?

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