Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on Friday signed legislation that critics say will make discrimination lawsuits filed by terminated employees almost impossible to win in court.
The governor’s signature on Senate Bill 43, for which Greitens had not publicly stated his support, will require workers who claim discrimination in wrongful-termination suits to prove that bias was the explicit reason they were fired. The current standard requires only that dismissed workers prove that bias merely was a contributing factor.
“I’ve met with passionate advocates on both sides of SB 43,” Greitens said. “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.”
The new law applies a “motivating factor” standard for employment discrimination cases, which Greitens’ office said is in keeping with standards used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in analyzing claims under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The measure changes Missouri’s whistleblower laws — including removing protections for state employees — and limits punitive damages for victims of workplace discrimination.
The bill also says employees can’t sue the individual who engaged in discriminatory actions. They can sue only the business itself.
Supporters of the new legislation say the changes are designed to reduce frivolous lawsuits and improve the state’s business climate.
But opponents said the law would roll back decades’ worth of civil rights progress in protecting Missourians from losing their jobs based on their ethnicity, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability status.
Among those who urged Greitens to veto the bill was Pat Rowe Kerr, a friend to Greitens. In 2009, she was fired from her position at the Missouri Veterans Commission because, she said, the agency’s director had a problem with older, successful women. A jury awarded Kerr nearly $3 million in damages.
The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Jeffrey Mittman, on Friday criticized Greitens’ action.
“Our leaders should be pushing policy decisions that lead to a better future for all — not rolling back our rights and putting more hard-working Missourians at risk for discrimination because of who they are or what they believe,” Mittman said.
He added: “In a time where we have seen many unconstitutional violations of Missourians’ rights by the government, this law destroys whistleblower protections when we need them most.”
Missouri state auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, said the new law will weaken whistleblower protections for public employees.
"Employees must be able to raise concerns without fear of losing their jobs. This measure will almost certainly create a chilling effect that will undermine the state's ability to uncover wasteful, improper or illegal uses of taxpayer dollars,” Galloway said in a statement. “In short, this legislation makes it easier for government to operate in the shadows."
Further stirring the debate was the fact that the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington, owns a company that is being sued for alleged racial discrimination.
Romine has strongly denied the suit’s accusations, as well as allegations that he pushed the legislation to help his business.
The new law was among several measures aimed at tort reform that Greitens signed during the week.
“Tort reform is important,” Greitens said. “We need to prevent trial lawyers from killing good jobs.”