Government & Politics

Missouri bill making it harder for workers to win discrimination cases goes to Greitens

The Missouri House sent a bill making it harder to prove discrimination against former employers to Gov. Eric Greitens.
The Missouri House sent a bill making it harder to prove discrimination against former employers to Gov. Eric Greitens.

Legislation making it more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers is on its way to Gov. Eric Greitens.

On a 98-30 vote, the Missouri House gave final approval Monday night to a bill requiring 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 contributed to their dismissal.

But numerous Democratic lawmakers refused to vote on the bill at all because the Senate sponsor of the legislation owns a company that’s currently being sued for discrimination. They argued that even voting in opposition to the bill would make them complicit in a major conflict of interest.

The bill also makes changes to the state’s whistleblower laws, including removing protections for state employees. It caps punitive damages a victim can be awarded in discrimination or harassment lawsuits and mandates those alleging discrimination can only sue employers and not individual employees or supervisors who may have engaged in the discriminatory or harassing behavior.

Critics of the bill say that if the governor signs it into law, it will be virtually impossible for a victim of discrimination to win in court. Ultimately, they say, it will act as a shield for the perpetrators of discrimination, harassment and other wrongdoing.

“The message this will send is we want to make it easier to discriminate in Missouri,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan, a St. Louis County Republican. “No two ways about it.”

Proponents of the bill argue that the rhetoric against it is overblown. It’s too easy to sue for discrimination in Missouri, they contend, and the aim of the legislation is to reduce frivolous lawsuits and improve the state’s business climate.

“Today, we can make a change that will help our employers,” said Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, a Carrollton Republican, later adding: “No one in this room is for discrimination. We will still be a no-tolerance state.”

The Senate approved the legislation in March. The House didn’t take the bill up until Monday.

If the bill had been amended in any way, it would have had to go back to the Senate, where the pending adjournment at 6 p.m. Friday, which, combined with continued dysfunction in that chamber, would have likely dashed any hopes of passage.

So House leaders made it clear they were going to fight off all suggested amendments in order to send the bill to the governor Monday night.

One amendment would have changed the standard of proof in discrimination cases from “the motivating factor” to “a motivating factor.” Every previous version of the bill that has been approved by the House used “a motivating factor,” and several proponents of the amendment said the change is an error that will make it even harder to win a discrimination case.

“I don’t think we should rubber-stamp the Senate’s drafting error,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat.

Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, said the House should not overlook problems with a bill just because adjournment looms. He said each of the amendments offered Monday night “would be an absolute no-brainer if not for the calendar date.”

But the bill’s supporters said critics were trying to make changes in order to sabotage the legislation’s chances.

“They’re trying to hang an amendment on here to kill the bill,” said Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican.

Another amendment, offered by Rep. Kevin Engler, a Farmington Republican, would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s discrimination law.

In Missouri, a person can be fired from their job, evicted from their apartment or kicked out of a restaurant for being gay or being perceived as gay. Bills changing that have been introduced in the Missouri legislature for 19 years without getting much traction.

“You can fire somebody for just cause if you find out they’re gay,” Engler said. “I think that’s sick. We should be disgusted we have that policy in this state.”

Rep. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat and one of only three openly gay state legislators, said state law punishes people for who they are.

“I was born gay. I’m gay today,” he said. “And it’s just a part of who I am.”

But Rep. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, said extending discrimination protections to LGBT Missourians could infringe on religious liberty.

“When you look at the tenets of religion, of the Bible, of the Qu’ran, of other religions,” he said, “there is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”

Engler withdrew the amendment before a vote could be taken, saying the underlying bill was too important and his amendment would put its chances in jeopardy.

Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, said Engler offering and then withdrawing the amendment was a political stunt. The debate on LGBT rights, Ellington said, was a distraction from the fact that the underlying legislation’s purpose is to “rollback a half-century of civil rights progress and re-institute Jim Crow in Missouri.”

Further complicating the debate, and inspiring a handful of Democrats to abstain from voting Monday, is the fact that Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington is sponsoring the bill and also owns a rent-to-own business in southeast Missouri that’s being sued for discrimination.

Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat, read a passage from the lawsuit where an employee says she was told by a supervisor to “quit acting like a (racial epithet)” and that “black people are the worst to work with.” 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.”

Greitens has not made any public statements about this specific legislation, and his spokesman could not be immediately reached Monday night for comment. But during last year’s campaign and since taking office, the governor has repeatedly said he wants to make the state’s courts more business friendly.

Jeanette Mott-Oxford, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Empower Missouri, said the bill shouldn’t be designated as “business friendly.”

“Discrimination is wrong,” she said, “and making it easier for businesses to discriminate is immoral, not ‘economic development.’ 

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock