Senator David Sater’s Capitol Report for the Week of March 6: Restoring Fairness to Employment Discrimination Laws

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JEFFERSON CITY — Much of the work of the Missouri Senate so far this legislative session has centered on improving Missouri’s business climate and restoring balance to the state’s court system. We have all heard the stories of frivolous lawsuits. Most remember the case where a McDonald’s customer sued because their coffee was too hot, but there are many others that defy believability and truly show the lengths some will go to game the system. For example, in 1994, a plaintiff sued Anheuser-Busch for false advertising after their alcoholic beverage failed to produce visions of beautiful women on a beach. This plaintiff sought damages for $10,000, claiming this false advertising caused emotional and psychological distress. In another case, a plaintiff sued Google when Google Maps guided them to walk on a freeway to get to their destination, where they were promptly struck by a car. The plaintiff also sued the driver of the car.

These cases highlight a problem in our legal system and that is the proliferation of frivolous lawsuits. While some are ridiculous and laughable, others relate to a very important subject, but are no less frivolous in their intent and effect. These cases often take the form of discrimination claims against an employer under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). Current law basically provides that a plaintiff only has to prove that such discrimination was a “contributing factor” to he or she being discharged from their job. What this means in court is that an attorney only has to convince a judge or jury that suggested or alleged discrimination was the reason an individual lost his or her job.

The federal standard and the standard most states use is the “motivating factor.” This means the employee’s protected classification actually played a role in and was a significant influence in the decision to fire them or take disciplinary action. In simpler terms, it means that discrimination was the real reason a person was fired and that is what should be proven in court, not suggestion or insinuation.

In response, the Senate debated and ultimately approved Senate Bill 43 last week, which reinstates the “motivating factor.” An employer should never discriminate against an employee based on race, religion or gender. Any that do should be held responsible for their actions and those employees should have access to justice. That being said, the pendulum has swung too far to one side, so much so that just being a member of a protected class is enough to bring a discrimination case, regardless of the circumstances. This is not just a problem for business owners fighting frivolous lawsuits, but is a grave injustice and insult to those truly experiencing and fighting discrimination.

The fact is the current system too often encourages meritless cases to move forward forcing large settlements and costing small businesses a lot of time and money. At a time when we are competing not just with other states, but globally for precious jobs, we should be promoting an environment that encourages investment and business in our state. The environment we have now where frivolous lawsuits are common and a business in and of themselves sends the wrong message about our state.

My colleagues and I spent more than 17 hours discussing this legislation last week and it required hard work and compromise to ultimately pass it out of the Senate. Restoring fairness and balance to Missouri employment discrimination law is a big step in protecting the integrity of our court system and, in the process, signals to businesses and job-creators that Missouri is a great place to set up shop and invest. We have many of the tools employers need: a hardworking and skilled workforce, great schools and universities and major highways and waterways. We need to add a fair and balanced legal system to that list.

As always, I welcome your ideas, questions and concerns about Missouri government. You may contact me at the State Capitol as follows: (573) 751-1480, by writing to Sen. David Sater, Missouri State Capitol, Room 416, Jefferson City, MO 65101.