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Missouri Republican Pushes Bill to Raise Burden of Proof in Discrimination Lawsuits

The Missouri State Senate meets on Sept. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Summer Ballentine)

Missouri state Rep. Michael Butler believes Senate Bill 43 is not only misguided — because it would make it “significantly more difficult” to prove unlawful discrimination — but also blatantly self-serving because it would help a Republican whose business is being sued for unlawful discrimination.

Other opponents of the legislation have given SB 43 a couple of nicknames: “The Right To Discriminate” and “The Right To Grope.”

The liberal blog Springfield Indivisible warned the “insane bill could send Missouri back to a pre-Civil Rights Act 1964, where Jim Crow ran rampant and Mad Men was reality.”

The opposition even has its own Facebook page, “Stop Senate Bill 43,” which proclaimed “Missourians will all lose these basic safety protections for ourselves and our families (including our spouses, parents, kids and grandkids who work.)”

“This is a blatant disregard for common decorum and integrity by Senator Romine, who’s is attempting to change a Human Rights law on a matter that directly benefits his company,” said Butler, a St. Louis Democrat, in a statement. “Moreover, no representative for the state of Missouri should tolerate or attempt to hide this kind of blatantly racist behavior.”

Sen. Gary Romine does own Show-Me-Rent-To-Own, a company that is being sued for racial discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

However, he said SB 43 was not self-serving. Romine argued it would benefit the entire Missouri business community by stopping frivolous lawsuits.

Senate Bill 43, which was sponsored by Romine, was approved by the state House Special Committee on Judicial Reform on April 11. It was approved by the Senate following a marathon two-day debate in March.

As it stands now, Missouri residents only have to prove their race, gender, sex or other legally protected status was a “contributing factor” to win a discrimination lawsuit.

Senate Bill 43 would require people who file suits, like the one facing Romine’s company, to explicitly prove they were mistreated by a boss or co-worker because of race, sex, gender, or any other category protected by the state’s Human Rights Act.

Under SB 43, lawsuits would have to be filed against the company, not individuals like a boss or a fellow employee. It would also cap damages and limit protections afforded to whistleblowers.

The Missourian reported that while detractors say the legislation would impose an unfair burden upon those suing for discrimination, supporters said the current law allows claims to be filed with no merit, imposing an undue hardship on business owners.

Romine wrote in an op-ed in the Daily Journal that, as a business owner, he has had to battle frivolous discrimination lawsuits.

“On three different occasions, I have had to go before the MCHR (Missouri Commission on Human Rights) as a business owner. In each instance, they determined the employee’s case had no merit, yet they still sent out Notice of Right to Sue letters, which opened the case up all over again,” Romine wrote. “In its current form, this system encourages individuals to pursue a meritless case simply to force a settlement, costing our small businesses time and money they do not have.”

“It is a solid piece of legislation that will go a long way toward reforming Missouri’s legal climate and improving our ability to grow existing businesses and attract new employers,” Romine added.

KSHB-TV reported it isn’t only the private sector that is being hurt by Missouri’s Human Rights Act, which is one of the toughest in the nation.

Dozens of employment discrimination lawsuits have been filed over the past decade against schools in the Kansas City, Mo., area, including more than 45 against the Kansas City Public Schools.

Joe Hatley, an attorney who does legal work for several schools in the area, said discrimination lawsuits now require a lower burden of proof for plaintiffs than other states. He said that results in the high number of lawsuits being filed in Missouri.

Hatley said he has seen the impact of what the Human Rights Act has done to the school districts that are his clients.

“It’s so easy for someone to make a stray comment here or there and that be turned into some evidence of bias,” Hatley said. “You can have a case in Missouri that’s very weak and it probably wouldn’t even be brought if the same conduct happened five miles to the west in Kansas.”