JEFFERSON CITY — Democrats in the Missouri Senate were delaying a vote Wednesday night on a Republican bill that Democrats argued would reverse decades of progress in civil rights by changing workplace discrimination laws.
Among other things, the legislation would require workers who bring wrongful termination lawsuits to prove discrimination was a "motivating factor" — not simply a contributing factor — in the employer's action. The legislation would also apply to other wrongful discrimination actions, such as the denial of promotions.
In cases where employers were found to have wrongfully discriminated, punitive damages would be tied to the number of employees the company has, with a maximum of $300,000, under the bill.
The stalling efforts were primarily the work of Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Robin Wright-Jones, of the St. Louis area, and Sen. S. Kiki Curls, of Kansas City. They said the bill's changes would make it more difficult for workers to prove they had been victims of discrimination and that employers would have less incentive to prevent discrimination in the workplace.
"What this bill does is make everyone outside this chamber unequal," Chappelle-Nadal said during the Senate debate.
Republicans contend the legislation would merely bring Missouri in line with federal job discrimination standards and make the state more appealing to businesses.
"The Missouri courts have reshaped the traditional handling of employment law," sponsoring Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, said earlier in the week. "We are now the worst place in that respect."
Voting along party lines, the Senate rejected an amendment Wednesday that would have excluded age discrimination from the higher legal standard proposed under the bill.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed similar legislation last year. This year's version keeps many provisions from last year's intact but makes changes to sections that deal with summary judgment decisions in court. Summary judgment allows cases to be decided before they go to a trial, if all of the parties can agree on the facts of the case.
In the 2011 bill, lawmakers said the courts should find two Supreme Court decisions to be "highly persuasive" when ruling on motions of summary judgment.
This year's legislation is more direct, telling courts plainly how to handle motions for summary judgment. It begins the sections related to summary judgment by stating that "it is the duty of the judicial branch to reduce the cost of litigation and end disputes timely."
The Senate legislation says that if an employee provides "direct evidence" of discrimination, then the employer must prove it would have taken the same action regardless of the plaintiff's evidence. If the court finds that the employer would have taken the action regardless of the employee's evidence, the court is instructed to rule in favor of the employer.
Lager accused Nixon of "playing politics" and being absent from negotiations about the bill. But Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he had been able to talk to the governor.
"I've had discussions with the governor last week and I know this is a difficult bill for him to find areas of compromise that he can accept, but he did not rule out the possibility that we could find some compromise position," Mayer said Monday.
The governor's office declined to comment Wednesday on Nixon's stance on the Senate bill.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said a similar workplace discrimination measure could be considered in the House next week.
"We hope the governor will sign that bill, because that will return a lot of stability to Missouri's small businesses that are currently lacking," said Jones.
"Businesses are very fearful of the litigation climate currently in this state. We have a system of laws that really seeks to punish the employer these days, and that's not what you need in the middle of a fiscal depression that we are experiencing."