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By a vote of 89-68, the Missouri House of Representatives today approved a bill that would have a substantial impact on workplace discrimination cases.  House Bill 1219 would essentially dismantle the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) and substantially increase the burden for proving workplace discrimination cases.

Specifically, the bill would require plaintiffs to prove that the protected criterion—race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age or disability—was a “motivating factor” instead of a “contributing factor” in wrongful termination cases or in other discriminatory actions.  The bill would also exempt governments and individual employees from liability.  Under current Missouri law, individual employees can be held liable in workplace discrimination cases if they are in a supervisory or managerial position and they have the power to affect different aspects of their employees’ employment, such as promotions, salary, or termination.

HB 1219 would also place caps on monetary awards for actual damages based upon the size of the employer, ranging from $50,000.00 for small employers to a $300,000.00 maximum for employers with more than 500 employees.  In addition to actual damages, the bill would limit the amount of punitive damages discrimination victims can recover.

The bill would also establish the Whistleblower Protection Act, which would place in statute existing common law exceptions to Missouri’s at-will employment doctrine.  The Act would make it unlawful for an employer to discharge or retaliate against a person (1) who has reported to the proper authorities an unlawful act of the employer or its agent or serious misconduct of the employer or its agent that violates a state law or regulation or a rule of a governmental entity; (2) who has refused to carry out a directive issued by the employer or its agent that if completed would be a violation of the law; or (3) who has engaged in conduct otherwise protected by statute or regulation.

Proponents of HB 1219 argue that the changes would align Missouri laws with federal protections.  As one lawmaker noted:  “the problem here in Missouri has been exacerbated by court interpretations over the last decade that have made it easier and easier for employees to bring frivolous cases and costly lawsuits against employers.  These court interpretations have forced Missouri businesses to comply with ‘two sets’ of anti-discrimination laws.”  By amending the MHRA to mirror federal law, compliance would be easier for companies.  Proponents also argue that the changes would render frivolous lawsuits more susceptible to summary judgment, which would greatly reduce the cost of litigating a case.  This, in turn, would allow employers to spend more time and money on expanding their businesses rather than fighting lawsuits.

Opponents of the bill contend that it would give employers less incentive to prevent workplace discrimination because it would impose an extremely high burden on employees to prove discrimination.  Opponents also argue that the bill, as written, includes problematic changes in discrimination law, such as removing individual liability and placing caps on actual and punitive damages.  According to some lawmakers, the bill would also significantly limit and weaken “whistle-blower” protections currently afforded under Missouri common law.

The Senate approved its own version of the legislation earlier this week when democrats and republicans finally reached agreement after nearly 15 hours of debate.  Senate Bill 592 is a compromise bill that would keep the “motivating factor” standard from the original version of the Senate bill, but remove certain language effectively directing courts how to decide summary judgment motions.

Although both the House and the Senate seem to be moving toward final legislation, there is still a long way to go before the Missouri Human Rights Act undergoes any changes.  As you may recall, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed similar legislation last year to protect “decades of civil rights progress in Missouri.”  Stay tuned.