Missouri lawmakers are considering a proposal to change the state’s discrimination law. The measure deals heavily with employment lawsuits and the application of the Missouri Human Rights Act.
The legislation would do away with current standards based on Missouri court cases, and would recommend analyzing employment discrimination cases based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Washington University (St. Louis) General Counsel Joseph Sklansky argued in favor of the proposal at a state Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
He claimed the state Supreme Court has made rulings dating back to 2005 which have altered the law to unreasonably favor plaintiffs.
“The result is a regime where allegations trump evidence, where proof that a defendant actually caused the alleged harm is no longer required, and where defendants have no choice but to either pay money to settle baseless allegations, or else expend substantial financial and other resources to defend such claims all the way through trial and appeal.”
Attorneys on opposite sides of the debate expressed strong disagreement on damages sought and awarded in discrimination cases. Lawyers in favor of the measure claimed awards of over a million dollars were all too common, while attorneys opposed contended such settlements were rare.
The proposal sets limits on damages depending on the number of workers employed at a business. For those with 100 or fewer employees, penalties would be capped at $50,000. Businesses with more than 500 employees would have a maximum penalty of $300,000.
It would also prohibit punitive damages against the state of Missouri. And only employers would be subject to lawsuits while persons acting in the interest of employers would be exempt.
St. Louis attorney Ian Cooper echoed sentiments expressed by Washington University’s Sklansky in arguing in favor of the measure. He said changing the law is necessary after the courts, over time, came to interpret and apply it excessively in favor of plaintiffs.
“If we continue with a scheme that provides different, and in my humble opinion, inappropriate protections, this state is put at a competitive disadvantage with regard to attracting employers, retaining employers, and having a vibrant economy in the state of Missouri.”
Cooper contended that moving to standards set by federal Supreme Court discrimination cases would bring Missouri in line with other states such as Illinois and Kansas in carrying out the litigation.
Elizabeth Fuchs with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender group PROMO testified against the measure. She noted the people she represents are not currently covered by non-discrimination protections, but said the proposal would harm those who are.
“It is critical for Missouri to continue to allow for a fair, able process when an employee faces discrimination, not make it harder for a wronged employee to seek recourse.”
Fuchs also said her group expects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to have discrimination protections in the near future.
Nimrod Chapel with the Missouri NAACP thinks the proposal goes way too far in limiting peoples’ ability to sue for being wronged.
“To say that we can’t hold people responsible for the harms that they bring to another, is anti-American” said Chapel. “It is against our faith, and is against our social morals.”
The measure also has a component dealing with whistleblower protections.
The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys claims, as written, it would restrict the reporting of wrongdoing to only those whose job descriptions define them as whistleblowers. The organization says such job titles don’t exist at the overwhelming majority if businesses.
St. Louis attorney John Burns testified that the whistleblower component of the proposal is flawed because it doesn’t allow employees to report wrongdoing by a company until the act has already occurred.
“This is a bad limitation” said Burns. “We want employees to report illegal acts before they occur if possible to prevent the illegal conduct from occurring in the first place.”
The proposal, Senate Bill 43, is one of a number of tort reform measures Republican Governor Eric Greitens and the GOP dominated legislature intend to pass into law this session.