JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The House Special Committee on Litigation Reform held an extended hearing on Sen. Gary Romine’s SB 43 after testimony ran over the two hours allotted Monday afternoon.
The bill is similar in nature to a bill heard earlier in the session by the committee sponsored by Rep. Kevin Austin. However, the bill was mired in controversy when the committee chair, Rep. Bill Lant, cut the microphone Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel during his testimony. Although Speaker Todd Richardson said the hearing would be reconvened to allow for Chapel’s testimony to be heard in full, the hearing on that particular piece of legislation was never rescheduled.
Instead, Romine’s Senate version of the bill, which passed March 2, was heard by the committee.
The bill would change Missouri Human Rights Act’s definition of a discriminatory practice against an employee that discrimination be the motivating factor instead of just a contributing factor as it currently reads. On top of that, the party discriminated against would have to prove the discrimination contributed to the damages received.
Romine said during his testimony that current law was too broad, and allowed for too many frivolous lawsuits against employers.
“If there is an employment activity that takes place whether it’s disciplinary action or termination, if a person was part of a protected class, then the employer could be sued for discrimination,” he said.
Much of Romine’s time testifying however was spent defending himself from a line of questioning provided by Rep. Steve Roberts Jr. regarding discrimination cases filed against his own company. Romine said the bill had no retroactivity clause and would not affect the outcome of his own lawsuits.
The rewrite has been lambasted by human rights organizations like the NAACP, the ACLU, Missouri Faith Voices and Empower Missouri who all held a joint press conference after the first part of the hearing. Chapel, who did testify Monday, said the bill was not tort reform, despite attempts by Republicans to brand it as such.
“Senate Bill 43 is codifying Jim Crow in Missouri law,” he said, echoing similar comments that led to his microphone being cut by Lant in February. “It will allow a whole group of people to harass and discriminate against other folks on the basis of their color, age, sex, disability, religion, factors given by God and should not be used as a basis for treating other folks different.”
The Missouri Human Rights Act currently protects “race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age as it relates to employment, disability, or familial status as it relates to housing.” It currently does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity despite attempts by the left to include these as protected classes with legislation like the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA).
Roberts stated during the hearing he would like to include MONA as an amendment to Romine’s legislation, but Romine rejected the idea, even though he said he did not believe people should be fired for their sexual orientation.
“I don’t think adding an additional class would be appropriate to add to this piece of legislation,” Romine said.
Those who testified in favor of the legislation argued it would help bolster Missouri’s business atmosphere, reiterating the same argument that have been used to endorse other tort reform bills.
Bryan Cave defense attorney Dan O’Keefe said the effects of current laws and the number of frivolous claims had become “horribly disappointing.”
“I have had several clients pull out of the state of Missouri choose not to come here, costing the state hundreds of jobs,” he said.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri also testified in favor of the bill.
Personal stories of discrimination highlight opposition
Opponents of the legislation argued it would give victims of discrimination limited legal avenue to pursue justice. During an inquiry of of Romine, Rep. Gina Mitten detailed her own experiences with workplace harassment as a young female lawyer.
“How would you feel if your wife, mother, daughter, sister was told by their boss how their breasts looked in a certain outfit?” she asked. “How would you like it if any of those same people told you how they thought about you during their sexual escapades the previous night? How about being spanked? People like me, young mothers trying to put food on the table for a two-year-old kid, they don’t talk because they need the job. Under your bill that same girl would have even less recourse even if she decided to say something.”
Tina Trickey, a woman from Cape Girardeau, testified how her husband won an age discrimination lawsuit after a five-and-a-half year legal ordeal with his former employer, Kaman Industrial Technologies.
“If we would have had to have proved motivating factor in this case, we would have never seen the inside of a courtroom,” she said.
Those opposed to the bill also received support in the form of written testimony from former Fox News anchor and correspondent Gretchen Carlson. Carlson received a $20 million settlement from Fox News’ parent company in September after accusing former chairman Roger Ailes of sexual harassment in July. She urged Missouri lawmakers to reconsider voting in favor SB 43 in a statement.”
“Let me be very clear: This is not a partisan issue. Republicans, Democrats and Independents are all harassed and discriminated against,” she said. The perpetrators of these acts come from all political parties as well… If a Missouri employee is brave enough to report harassment or discriminatory behavior, I’d hope members of the Missouri legislature would stand with him/her.”