JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri’s Republican governor signed a controversial proposal into law Friday that will make suing for workplace and housing discrimination more difficult.
Despite high-profile opposition from civil rights groups, a personal friend and Democratic lawmakers, Gov. Eric Greitens approved a measure that will require people to explicitly prove their race, sex or other protected status actually motivated their boss or colleague to mistreat them to win an employment discrimination case.
Greitens, a political newcomer who took office in January, had said little about his position on the measure, which was sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington.
On Friday, in a release, the governor said the law brings Missouri in line with 38 other states and the federal government.
“Tort reform is important. We need to prevent trial lawyers from killing good jobs,” Greitens said.
Missouri workers currently need only prove their protected status was a “contributing factor” to prevail in court. For example, if a Hispanic plaintiff is fired for being late for work while white workers show up late and aren’t fired, the Hispanic employee could ask a jury to compare the treatment and contend that race “contributed” to the boss’s decision.
Under the new law, which goes into effect Aug. 28, such an employee would need to meet a higher standard: The worker would have to show that race explicitly “motivated” mistreatment through, for example, written documentation of racist comments.
The measure also caps damages for successful plaintiffs based on the size of the company and curbs protections for whistleblowers as well.
The measure has drawn scorn on a number of fronts, including from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which said the law will make Missouri inconsistent with the federal Fair Housing Act, putting an estimated $600,000 in federal funding in jeopardy.
Romine also was put in the spotlight because his business — a rent-to-own furniture chain — was sued for racial discrimination in 2015.
The Missouri NAACP issued a travel advisory aimed at telling travelers to be aware of a danger to their civil rights as part of a push to have Greitens reject the bill. Among those speaking at a related news conference was former Missouri veterans ombudsman Pat Rowe Kerr, who said the new law would have made it harder for her to win a discrimination case against her boss.
Kerr was an avid supporter of Greitens during the campaign season and served on his inaugural planning committee.
Supporters of the legislation said the change will help reduce the number of “frivolous” lawsuits that hurt businesses in the state.
“I’ve met with passionate advocates on both sides of SB 43. I respect all of them. I’ve listened to every side. I believe we need to bring Missouri’s standards in line with 38 other states and the federal government,” said Greitens.
That fits with Greitens’ repeated comments and actions on the campaign trail and since taking office that Missouri’s legal system favors trial attorneys who seek large damage awards.
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