Missouri Republicans are on the cusp of making it much more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers.
The bill, which has cleared the Senate and could be debated by the House as early as next week, would require workers who claim discrimination in wrongful termination lawsuits to prove that bias was the explicit reason they were fired. The current standard is much lower, requiring them to prove only that bias was a contributing factor.
Democrats are crying foul, saying the legislation rolls back decades of progress on civil rights and will make it virtually impossible for a victim of discrimination to win in court. The bill also makes dramatic changes to the state’s whistleblower laws — including removing protections for state employees — which critics say will shield the perpetrators of discrimination, harassment and other wrongdoing.
“It would enable employers to engage in unlawful discrimination with little fear of consequences,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat.
But to the bill’s supporters, the changes are designed to reduce frivolous lawsuits and improve the state’s business climate.
“Discrimination is ugly and wrong,” said Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “But tipping the standards so far against employers is also wrong. This bill simply provides justice for both parties.”
Democrats say the bill also represents a major conflict of interest because its sponsor, Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington, is entangled in a discrimination lawsuit.
Romine owns the Show-Me Rent-to-Own chain of furniture stores in southeast Missouri. The company is being sued by an employee who says she was targeted with racial slurs by a store manager. The lawsuit also claims the store contained a map with a circle around an African-American neighborhood and a note saying “do not rent to.”
“This senator … seeks to change the law to suit his own personal advantage, and to twist the arc of public policy to suit his personal benefit,” said Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Liberty Democrat. “There can be no doubt that this legislation is the result of a corrupted and self-dealing individual who no longer honors the oath of office he once took.”
Romine has consistently bristled at the accusations that he’s pushing the legislation to benefit his company.
He says that on three occasions his business has faced accusations of discrimination that were deemed without merit by the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. But in each instance, the allegations still ended up resulting in a lawsuit.
“The system encourages individuals to pursue a meritless case simply to force a settlement, costing our small businesses time and money they do not have,” Romine said.
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, defended Romine and his legislation.
“He’s trying to do this because he thinks it helps the overall environment for businesses to compete and operate here in Missouri,” Richardson said.
In addition to the changes in discrimination and whistleblower law, the bill also would limit punitive damages for victims of workplace discrimination. Workers could get up to $500,000 if their employer has more than 500 employees; $200,000 if their employer had between 200 and 500 employees; $100,000 if their employer has between 100 to 199 employees; and $50,000 if the employer has fewer than 100 employees.
If the House passes the bill without any amendments, which GOP leaders have said is their plan, it would go directly to Gov. Eric Greitens.