Democratic State Representative Michael Butler of St. Louis distributed an explosive court document Monday detailing a lawsuit by a former employee of Republican State Senator Gary Romine of Farmington.
The Plaintiff Petition against Romine’s “Show-Me Rent-to-Own” business alleges a supervisor at the company continually used racist language, including extensive use of the “N” word, toward the employee.
The lawsuit claims “Discrimination of Race” against the employee, Tracy Ranson. It also charges that retaliation was used against Ranson, claiming his complaints to superiors about the manager’s discriminatory comments were a contributing factor in his firing.
The distribution of the court document comes on the same day a House committee passed a bill sponsored by Romine (Senate Bill 43), which would make it more difficult to bring discrimination lawsuits.
It replaces the phrase “contributing factor” (language included in the lawsuit) with “motivating factor” as the standard for determining unlawful discrimination. Under the measure, the motivating factor means the employee’s protected class must have played a role in any adverse action, and the person must prove such action was the cause of damages.
The lawsuit also claims Ranson’s filing for worker compensation was a contributing factor in his termination, noting the business maintained a workers’ compensation insurance policy. It does not claim the termination and discrimination were due to any medical diagnosis.
But the lawsuit takes a major step in arguing current law limiting punitive damages is unconstitutional because it was put in place by the state Legislature. It claims the statute violates the separation of powers because the courts, not the legislature, are charged with determining verdicts and judgments.
The House Special Committee on Litigation Reform approved Romine’s measure by a vote of 8-5 Monday. Two Republicans, committee Vice Chair Bill White of Joplin and Don Phillips of Kimberling City, voted with all three Democrats against the bill.
White offered an amendment which was voted down by his fellow GOP members which would have maintained whistle-blower protections for managers, supervisors, and those paid to report on the business’ activities.
During the hearing, Democrat Mark Ellebracht of Liberty urged fellow committee members to vote down the measure while sharply criticizing Romine.
“To have a senator introduce a bill that is so evidently self-serving is offensive, and it tarnishes our honor by participating and allowing him to advance this legislation” said Ellebracht. “I encourage the body to vote no for our own honor sake, and for the oath that we took.”
The House Democratic Caucus joined The Legislative Black Caucus for a news conference before the committee vote to express opposition to Romine’s legislation.
Representative Steven Roberts of St. Louis echoed Ellebracht’s distaste for Romine’s involvement with the bill. “Here you have a senator who is personally invested in this legislation, and it will personally affect his business, and the businesses that he’s engaging in” Robert said. “I think that’s the type of self-dealing that we all want to steer away from.”
Representative Gina Mitten of Richmond Heights said the bill would legalize Romine’s discriminatory actions. “That should be an outrage to everyone in this building, that someone who is currently being sued for the very behavior that he is trying to make legal in my opinion” said Mitten. “To put it bluntly, the senator’s sponsorship of Senate Bill 43 appears to be a blatant example of an elected official abusing his power for his own personal benefit.”
Republicans who favor the measure argue it brings Missouri in line with federal standards for discrimination lawsuits and would help cut down on frivolous litigation.
It was approved by the full Senate by a 23-9 vote along party lines. With the House committee’s passage, the bill will advance to that chamber’s floor.