Tag Archives: Missouri Human Rights Act

Missouri Supreme Court Opens New Door To LGBTQ Protections Under The Missouri Human Rights Act

Contributed by Brian Wacker, March 1, 2019

gavel and scales of justice

In a pair of rulings handed down on Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court expanded the reach of the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) to encompass, under certain circumstances, LGBTQ individuals and additional types of evidence that can support MHRA discrimination and retaliation claims. Both cases – Lampley, et al v. Missouri Comm’n on Human Rights, et al and R.M.A., et al v. Blue Springs R-IV Sch. Dist., et al – should have a significant impact on employers in Missouri and how they evaluate the risks of employment actions against LGBTQ individuals moving forward.

By its text, the MHRA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate or retaliate against an employee with respect to compensation, terms of employment, or privileges of employment because of that employee’s race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, or sex. The MHRA does not expressly prohibit discrimination or retaliation based on an employee’s sexual orientation. Missouri courts have interpreted the MHRA accordingly.

In Lampley, the complaining employee was gay, but his sexual orientation was not the issue presented to the court. Instead, the plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination complaining that his employer, the Missouri Department of Social Services, subjected him to sex discrimination and retaliation, which is prohibited under the MHRA. The plaintiff asserted he was subjected to sex discrimination and harassment at work because “he does not exhibit the stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave” and that other similarly-situated co-workers (i.e., non-gay co-workers who exhibited stereotypical attributes) were treated differently.  He also complained that he received lower performance evaluations at work as retaliation for his complaints about the alleged harassment. His co-worker and co-plaintiff also filed a Charge of Discrimination, complaining that she was discriminated against based on her association with him. 

The court in Lampley distinguished claims of discrimination based on sex-based characteristics from discrimination based on sexual orientation.  According to the court, the plaintiff’s sexual orientation was “merely incidental” to his sex discrimination complaint. Since the plaintiff did not actually allege he was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation, he could pursue his claims under the MHRA since “stereotyping” can give rise to an inference of discrimination against a member of a protected class, and is considered an unlawful hiring practice by the Commission’s own regulations. 

Whether intended or not, it is easy to see that the court’s ruling in Lampley now provides LGBTQ employees (and their attorneys) a clearer path to pursue discrimination and retaliation claims under state law, framing their claims as sex-based rather than sexual orientation-based. This ruling, coupled with the court’s contemporaneous ruling in R.M.A., in which the court vacated a lower court’s dismissal of a transgender student’s MHRA sex discrimination claim against his school for refusing him access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms, constitutes a clear victory for LGBTQ advocates.   

The Missouri Supreme Court sent a message on Tuesday with regard to LGBTQ rights. Employers in Missouri should take heed. 

Governor Signs Important Changes to the Missouri Human Rights Act into Law

Contributed by Amanda Biondolino, July 10, 2017

Missouri Governor Eric Greitens recently signed into law changes to the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA), bringing it in line with federal employment law standards. The changes take effect August 28, 2017.

man signing document

Close up of man signing document 

The most significant change is the return of the motivating factor standard to Missouri discrimination claims. Prior to 2007, MHRA claims, like federal claims, were analyzed to determine whether a protected characteristic “motivated” the challenged employment decision. In 2007 the Missouri Supreme Court, relying on MHRA’s definition of “discrimination” as well as a pattern jury instruction, held that an employee raises a triable issue of fact by providing evidence that a protected characteristic “contributed” to the employment decision. The holding was interpreted to allow for liability if a prohibited characteristic contributed to the decision in any way whatsoever, no matter how trivial a role it played. As a result, summary judgment was rarely, if ever, granted.

The new amendments help employers by bringing the MHRA back in line with federal law. Effective August 28, 2017, employers can be held liable only when the employee provides evidence that a protected classification “actually played a role” in the employment decision and “had a determinative influence on the adverse decision or action.”

Other important features of this bill include:

  • Removing individual liability for employment discrimination
  • Strengthening the religious organization exemption
  • Implementing damage caps based on number of employees
  • Preserving timeliness as a complete jurisdictional defense
  • Requiring the “business judgment” instruction and abrogating “contributing factor” instructions
  • Requiring the Commission to abide by the statutory time frame when issuing Right to Sue Notices upon request
  • Codifying wrongful discharge claims and applying the motivating factor standard to whistleblower claims
  • Defining several key terms in an attempt to clarify the new heightened standard of proof

This is great start, but the law will not solve all problems from the MHRA currently facing Missouri employers. The law defines several key terms with the likely intent of clarifying the heightened standard adopted. However, additional definitions added to the text of the MHRA which are not contained in its federal counterparts could lead to unintended expansions. We can expect that these and other aspects of this new legislation to be aggressively litigated.

Despite any shortcomings, this bill marks a significant step in returning the MHRA back in line with its federal counterparts. In order to take advantage of the amendments, employers should work with experienced labor and employment counsel to fine tune their policies and processes before a claim arises so they are well poised to defeat unfounded claims at the summary judgment stage whenever possible. Regular training, well supervised performance appraisal systems, and comprehensive documentation systems that preserve records will not only allow an employer to defeat unfounded discrimination claims at the summary judgment stage (or better yet, at the administrative stage), but will also improve the quality and performance of your workforce.