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Missouri Democrats end delay on workplace discrimination vote in Senate

Thursday, March 8, 2012 | 8:38 a.m. CST; updated 10:04 a.m. CST, Thursday, March 8, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — After holding the floor into the night Wednesday, Democrats in the Missouri Senate allowed debate to end on a measure that would change the state's workplace discrimination laws.

Senators did not, however, vote on whether to pass the bill. A Senate oversight committee still must review the legislation because a fiscal estimate included with it says its changes could cost the state about $1.2 million per year in federal funding.

The committee is expected to do so Thursday and the bill could be brought up in the full Senate the same day for a final vote without any further debate. If it passes, the measure will go to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon vetoed similar legislation last year, which Republicans also passed despite Democratic opposition.

The new 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 also would 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. Political subdivisions, such as city governments, would not be liable for any punitive damages.

Democrats in the House and Senate have said they are confident that Nixon will veto the new measure. A spokesman for Nixon declined to comment on the governor's position Wednesday night.

Saying she was afraid the legislation would reverse decades of hard-fought civil rights gains, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal led the effort to keep debate going and spoke Wednesday against the bill for about five hours on the Senate floor.

"I'm not going to wait for the veto to raise attention on this issue," Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said. "My goal is to raise attention on this issue now. That is what this debate deserves."

Specifically, Chappelle-Nadal said the changes would hurt women, minorities and people with disabilities from being treated unfairly at their jobs.

"I believe with every part of my being that there are vulnerable people who are challenged, who have things taken from them," she said. "I believe that if this bill goes into effect that we will have a justice system where those people would not have an avenue to go through."

Chappelle-Nadal also led a 15-hour effort by Democrats to block a Senate vote on a nearly identical bill five weeks ago, along with Sens. Kiki Curls of Kansas City, and Robin Wright-Jones of St. Louis.

Democrats allowed that measure to come to a vote in the early morning hours of Feb. 1 after the bill's supporters agreed to strip out provisions of the bill that covered summary judgment, a legal procedure that allows a lawsuit to be decided before it is heard by a jury.

The bill debated Wednesday also does not include provisions dealing with summary judgment.

Republicans, who largely support the proposed changes, hold a large enough majority in the Senate to override a potential Nixon veto, but they do not have such numbers in the House, which passed the legislation last month.

Led by Sen. Brad Lager, Senate Republicans have said the bill would merely bring Missouri in line with federal job discrimination standards and could make the state more appealing to businesses.

Lager, who is running for lieutenant governor, said Nixon had been entirely absent from the legislative process.

"The governor has not told us what he will or will not accept," Lager, R-Savannah, said. "Therefore, we're going to send him what we think is good public policy. If he chooses to veto that, that's his prerogative."

Rep. Kevin Elmer, the House sponsor of the measure passed by the Senate in February said Wednesday that the "motivating factor" standard currently in use is too broad and that businesses lack certainty about whether they can be sued for damages.

"We are so out of line with the federal law and other states that you can't really justify saying that we're a business-friendly state," Elmer, R-Nixa, said.


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