Missouri House panel considers change to worker lawsuits

Monday, February 11, 2013 | 6:44 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Republicans are hoping the third time is a charm for a measure a Missouri House committee considered Monday that would make it harder for employees to win lawsuits alleging workplace discrimination.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has vetoed similar legislation each of the last two years. But with a veto-proof Republican majority in both legislative chambers, the bill could have a different fate this year.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa, would require workers who file suit over an employer's action to prove that discrimination was a "motivating factor." The change would mirror the standard currently used in federal courts, as Missouri law allows employees to win workplace lawsuits if discrimination is a "contributing factor."

Elmer said the bill would cut down on expensive and lengthy trials by allowing judges to dismiss lawsuits early if they do not meet the higher standard. The bill would also cap the amount of damages an employee can be awarded.

Tina Trickey's husband, Jim, won $760,000 in 2011 from a federal court during his age discrimination lawsuit against his former employer. She told the committee the bill assumes that all companies are going to do the right thing and not discriminate against their employees.

"(This bill) does not protect the employees. It protects the corporations. They don't need protection," Trickey said.

Separate from the workplace lawsuit provisions, Elmer's measure could also reduce protections for employees who report wrongdoing in the workplace.

The legislation would restrict "whistle-blower" status to an employee who reports an illegal act to a law enforcement agency or the employer's human resources representative. It would not allow whistle-blowers reporting illegal acts to their immediate supervisor to sue and collect damages if an employer retaliates. It also places caps on how much money a whistle-blower can recover from their employer if they are fired.

The committee did not vote on the bill Monday and gave no timetable for future action.

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