by Daniel K. O’Toole
Changes seen as making the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) more “employer-friendly” are set to take effect on August 28.
One of the changes will eliminate individual liability for supervisors and specify that only employers may be held liable for discrimination. The previous law allowed employees alleging discrimination to sue both the employer and any supervisory employee who allegedly discriminated against them.
Also, the new law excludes any entity that is owned or operated by a religious organization from the definition of “employer.” The change will presumably exclude from suit, for example, entities such as religious charities or hospitals operated by religious orders. Under previous law, entities were exempt if they were owned and operated by a religious order, which became a difficult standard to meet.
The changes also impose limits on employees’ damages in MHRA lawsuits. The new “caps” limit all damages other than actual back pay, interest on back pay, attorneys’ fees, and court costs. Damages will be limited to:
- $50,000 for employers with five to 100 employees;
- $100,000 for employers with 101 to 200 employees;
- $200,000 for employers with 201 to 500 employees; and
- $500,000 for employers with more than 500 employees.
Under previous law, the damages cap in MHRA cases limited punitive damages to $500,000 or five times the “net amount of judgment.” Missouri courts have construed “net amount of judgment” to encompass a variety of damages, including mental distress damages and attorneys’ fees.
Further, the new law adopts a “motivating factor” standard for liability rather than the less stringent “contributing factor” standard. “Motivating factor” means an employee’s protected characteristic (e.g., race, sex, or age) had “a determinative influence” on the employer’s decision. The legislation also instructs courts to apply a more stringent test when determining whether a case merits a trial or whether it can be thrown out before trial.
The new law specifically permits an employer to challenge—at any time—the timeliness of a discrimination charge or the authority of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights to issue a right-to-sue letter. The changes also create the Whistleblower Protection Act, which codifies some of the employer-friendly case law on public-policy wrongful discharge.
Finally, the law states that the remedies available under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act, the MHRA, and the Whistleblower Protection Act are the exclusive remedies “for injury or damages arising out of an employment relationship.”
For more information on the changes to the MHRA, see the June 2017 issue of Missouri Employment Law Letter.