JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's Republican-led Legislature is making a second attempt at revamping the state's workplace discrimination laws after Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill last year that he said would have rolled back decades of civil rights progress.
A Senate committee endorsed legislation Thursday that would require workers to prove that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in wrongful termination cases, instead of the current lesser standard of a contributing factor. The measure also would limit the court damages that could be recovered and would give courts a new framework for deciding cases without a jury trial.
The discrimination legislation was among the first three bills submitted Thursday for debate by the Senate during their 2012 session — highlighting the priority placed upon it by Republican legislative leaders.
Supporters say the legislation is designed to make Missouri's discrimination law match federal protections. The measure is a priority for a coalition of business groups that includes the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Associated Industries of Missouri and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Sen. Brad Lager, who sponsored the legislation last year and is doing so again, said the courts have made changes to how Missouri discrimination laws are applied. He said that has hampered the economy.
"We cannot allow an imbalanced court and overzealous trial lawyers to continue to plague the economy of our state, to poach our employers and to hurt our citizens," said Lager, R-Savannah.
Lager said he made changes for this year's version of the bill that are designed to address concerns raised by several lawmakers. But plenty of opposition remains, and it is unclear if the second attempt will prove any more successful.
Nixon held a news conference last year to announce he was vetoing the discrimination legislation. The governor said the measure would have rolled back civil rights and thrown hurdles in the path of those whose rights have been violated. Lager said he has tried unsuccessfully since early December to meet with Nixon's administration to discuss possible changes.
Opponents of the new bill told the Senate committee this week that Missouri courts have handled workplace discrimination cases fairly. Some said it seemed businesses were seeking to skew the cases in their favor.
Mark Jess, the founder of the Kansas City-based Employee Rights Law Firm, said there is no evidence that companies have left or refused to come to the state because of the Missouri Human Rights Act. Jess called the legislation a "cynical bill."
Other critics included advocates for the disabled, a teachers union, the American Cancer Society and the Missouri NAACP.
Several business groups told senators that it has become more difficult for employers to defend against even frivolous discrimination claims. Dan Mehan, the president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said employers believe that discrimination is wrong and does not belong in the workplace but need an opportunity to defend themselves.
"What is at issue is bending Missouri's laws unfairly so that employers are unable to defend themselves against false claims," Mehan said in a statement. "We must change that or Missouri courts will become labeled as anti-employer, and that will cost our state jobs and workers' livelihoods."
Among other things, the bill sets a framework for how judges in workplace discrimination cases should decide whether to grant summary judgment, which is to rule for one party or another before taking the case to trial. Under the legislation, when a worker shows specific evidence of discrimination, the employer would need to demonstrate the same decision would have been made anyway.
If a court determines that the employer would have taken the same action anyway, then the legislation directs judges to side with the company. If there is no direct evidence of discrimination, the worker would need to establish a discrimination allegation. The employer then could offer an explanation that does not constitute discrimination, and the worker would need to offer facts to question those reasons.