Lager renews effort to limit 'whistle blowing'

State Sen. Brad Lager told a Senate committee Monday that a court ruling “a few years ago … dramatically changed the way that ‘whistle blower’ was interpreted in our state.”

So he wants lawmakers this year to rewrite Missouri law and “take it back to the way it was — in order for there to be a whistle blower protection, there actually has to be a finding of something wrong happening.”

After the cited court decision, Lager, R-Savannah, said, Missouri’s legal standard is a threshold that provides protection to people who report that “maybe something might be happening or maybe was going to happen.”

Lawyer Bill Lawson told the Senate’s Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee: “We all recognize and agree that there should be protections afforded to true whistle blowers, and that those individuals should not be subject to retaliation, and jeopardize their employment, for doing that which we all appreciate them doing.”

But, he said, the state’s business community and the lawyers who defend businesses think state law needs to be clarified.

“It started out years ago as a narrow exception to the doctrine of ‘employment at will,’” Lawson explained, pointing to Missouri’s public policy that, generally, allows employers to terminate employees for any reason.

He said some Missouri courts have used a “reasonable belief standard” that protects employees when they report an act by their bosses that they think violates the state’s laws — even though the Missouri Supreme Court said that should not be the standard.

But Lynn Bratcher, a Kansas City attorney who’s been “handling employment cases for over 20 years” told the committee the bill isn’t needed — and also has provisions that are fundamentally unfair.

“I disagree that the common law was changed,” Bratcher testified. “These are rare cases. … This bill really deters people — who are very courageous — from coming forward and doing the right thing.

“It’s in all Missourians’ best interest — including the best interests of the business community — to have people who are willing to come forward.”

She cited two cases she handled where employees were fired for reporting that their boss was stealing from the company.

“We tried both cases, and it wasn’t until after the second case that (the boss) was finally fired,” she said.

But, under Lager’s bill, neither of the two women fired would be protected because of the jobs they held in that company.

And under the proposed law changes, Bratcher testified, one of the women — who “suffered a great deal of emotional distress damages” — would not get the settlement for counseling services she was awarded because “she would only have been able to recover the costs of her medical bills.”

Associated Industries of Missouri President Ray McCarty told the committee the issue has been discussed for many years, and that Lager’s bill “erases the ability of someone who is not entitled to protection, to claim protection under the law.”

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar bill lawmakers passed in 2011. The Senate committee took no action on the measure Monday night.

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