Editorials

Editorial: Middle ground, transparency needed in workplace lawsuits

Discrimination in the workplace is wrong and must be subject to legal challenge. At the same time, frivolous lawsuits cost taxpayers dearly. Lawmakers should improve transparency and seek middle ground.
Discrimination in the workplace is wrong and must be subject to legal challenge. At the same time, frivolous lawsuits cost taxpayers dearly. Lawmakers should improve transparency and seek middle ground.

Missouri taxpayers have spent more than $50 million during the past five years to settle or pay damages for lawsuits against the state.

The bulk of the settlements pertain to discrimination litigation.

The eye-popping figure comes from the office of the state attorney general, who made the list public earlier this week. The state’s legal expense fund became an issue after accusations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation were lodged against the state Department of Corrections, but other state agencies are facing similar scrutiny.

The state auditor is investigating the legal expense fund as well.

Now lawmakers are scrambling to address these cases, which siphon money from legitimate state functions such as schools and safety.

Here’s a good place to start: The way to end discrimination lawsuits is to stop discriminating. The state should revisit employee screening and training to ensure workplaces are free of unacceptable comments, hostile work environments and biased hiring and promotions.

At the same time, we understand the legal structure for workplace litigation is complicated.

States, cities and counties routinely face discrimination claims. Because the losses in such cases can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, public officials often attempt to settle the lawsuits out of court. Even that can be expensive.

Separating legitimate legal claims from frivolous lawsuits is monumentally difficult. Everyone deserves his or her day in court, no matter how improbable the lawsuit.

At the same time, taxpayers should not be on the hook for false claims — or extortionate demands from lawyers. There needs to be a middle ground.

State Rep. Gail McCann Beatty of Kansas City has proposed a promising starting point. She wants the Missouri attorney general to provide public monthly reports on payouts from the state’s legal expense funds. The transparency would help lawmakers and the public see if patterns of discrimination emerge in specific departments.

Kansas City and other large cities should consider similar openness. The taxpaying public should know if a city, county or school district is paying too much for age and gender discrimination claims.

At that point, lawmakers can go further. Employment arbitration is a sticky concept for many workers — and their attorneys — but some regular mechanism for reviewing claims before going to court might make sense. Arbiters’ decisions should also be made public.

Laws can’t fix the entire problem. Judges and juries must scrutinize claims to make sure workers and taxpayers are protected.

Unfounded discrimination claims cheapen the effort to stop real workplace abuse.

Still, it’s worth repeating that employers and supervisors should stop discriminating. That might not end every lawsuit, but it would save money. And it’s the right thing to do.

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