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NAACP: Fight against discrimination law could go to court

NAACP: Fight against discrimination law could go to court

August 20th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News

The fight against Missouri's new discrimination law isn't over, opponents said, even though it goes into effect in just eight days.

State NAACP President Rod Chapel said Friday that fight could end up in a courtroom.

"Lawyers get a bad name, but one thing we try to work out is to get our words in the right order and put them in the right way," Chapel, who is also an attorney, said. "Senate Bill 43 is a train wreck in terms of drafting.

"First, look at the title — employment discrimination bill — but it (also) affects housing and public accommodations."

He said a potential lawsuit also could challenge the way the new law handles litigation issues because "it doesn't provide a remedy for some of those traditional issues."

Still, Chapel cautioned, opponents shouldn't count on a lawsuit blocking the new law they've been fighting all year.

Supporters said the new law makes it harder to file frivolous lawsuits in the state by changing the legal standard for filing workplace discrimination claims so Missouri now has the same standards as the federal government and 38 other states.

When Gov. Eric Greitens signed the bill June 30, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Dan Mehan said: "This new law ends a decade-long period where Missouri was one of the easiest places in the nation to sue a company and win.

"Our abnormally low standard for discrimination lawsuits was a major reason why Missouri has been labeled a 'judicial hellhole' and ranked among the states with the worst legal climates in the nation (hurting) our ability to attract business investment opportunities."

The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys in January challenged the American Tort Reform Association's "Judicial Hellhole" label, saying it "isn't based on research into actual conditions in the courts."

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Chapel strongly disagrees with the bill supporter's main premise.

"Missouri is not joining a 'federal' standard, and the allegation that we're joining 38 other states with a 'motivating factor' (standard) is not correct," he explained. "While (the new law) does have 'motivating factor' within its definition in terms of the standard, it does not have 'the' motivating factor.

"So, we think the application of our statute is going to be much more strict than the other jurisdictions."

Also, Chapel noted, Missouri's new law removed "individual liability" from the current law, saying that means a person claiming discrimination can sue only the employer and not a fellow employee who may have caused the alleged discriminatory act or made the comment.

That would allow the employer to claim the alleged discrimination wasn't approved by the employer — leaving what Chapel believes is the possibility no one would be held responsible for discrimination.

Supporters of the law said it includes language placing the existing common law exceptions for whistleblowers into state law and makes it illegal for an employer to discharge — or retaliate against — an individual who is a whistleblower of his or her employer's unlawful conduct.

However, the opponents said the new law makes it harder for whistleblowers to report their employers' suspected wrongdoing.

Former state Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia and current Missouri Democratic Party chairman, said Friday: "All throughout life, we tell people, 'If you see something, say something.' We tell people to speak up. We teach our children to stand up to bullies.

"This (law) sends the exact opposite message. It's targeted at silencing the very people who are speaking up (when) they see something wrong."

Friday's Jefferson City briefing was part of a series of meetings the NAACP has been holding around the state, discussing the ramifications the group sees with the new law going into effect next week.

Chapel acknowledged the Legislature passed the bill and Greitens signed it in spite of his and others' opposition, but the series of meetings and rallies isn't just whining because the opponents didn't get their way.

"Every Missourian should be aware of what's happening because the threshold of what is discrimination in Missouri is going to change on the 28th," he explained. "There's conduct that would not have been appropriate or tolerated before Aug. 28 that after Aug. 28 will be OK.

"It will be harder for people to protect themselves and their civil rights."

Webber said the new law "puts vulnerable working Missourians in more difficult situations (and) empowers aggressors over victims."

Especially with the events of recent weeks, he added, "It should leave no doubt that people of color and people of religious minorities face discrimination and, at a time like this, moving backwards in civil rights is wrong."

Chapel argued another way the new law discriminates against minorities is the federal Housing and Urban Development department (HUD) "recently determined they were going to cut a half-million dollars from Missouri's budget — that they use for the enforcement of housing (discrimination) laws because we are so far out of compliance."

Mehan said June 30 that the new law's "reforms" mean Missouri has "taken a big step toward restoring fairness in our court system while ensuring that businesses engaging in the unacceptable act of discrimination are held accountable."