JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – Minutes after reaching an agreement to end a filibuster effort that lasted nearly 15 hours, the Missouri Senate endorsed legislation early Thursday that would change the state’s workplace discrimination laws.
Fearful of reversing decades of hard-fought civil rights gains, Democrats held the Senate floor for hours Wednesday and into early Thursday morning, vowing to block a preliminary Senate vote on the bill.
That bill would require workers who bring wrongful termination lawsuits to prove discrimination was a “motivating factor” not simply a contributing factor in the employer’s action. The legislation also would apply to other wrongful discrimination actions, such as the denial of promotions.
In cases where employers were found to have wrongfully discriminated, the legislation would tie punitive damages to a company’s number of employees, with a maximum award of $300,000. Political subdivisions, such as city governments, would not be liable for any punitive damages.
At about 1:20 a.m. Thursday, senators endorsed by a voice vote a version of the legislation that would keep those provisions, but removes parts of the original bill that tell courts how to handle motions of summary judgment. The bill must be approved once more before it goes to the House.
The original bill told courts plainly how to handle motions for summary judgment, stating “it is the duty of the judicial branch to reduce the cost of litigation and end disputes timely.”
The legislation said that if an employee provides “direct evidence” of discrimination, then the employer must prove it would have taken the same action regardless of the plaintiff’s evidence. If the court finds the employer would have taken the action regardless of the employee’s evidence, the court was instructed to rule in favor of the employer.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who led the filibuster effort by speaking against the original bill for 10 hours Wednesday, moved to have the summary judgment language taken out of the final bill. She said that language would unfairly allow judges to decide a majority of cases rather than juries.
“I truly believe that individuals who have been harassed and who have been wronged in their employment should have an avenue to go through where they do have a trial by jury,” she said after the Senate vote. “I do not believe that one individual should make a determination based on the facts and have the ability to throw out a case.”
The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Brad Lager, said before the vote that he supported the removal of the language after negotiations with Democrats.
“I think she’s identified an area here where, clearly, there was confusion. I think we are moving in the right direction.” He said. “What is happening right now is the public policy process. This is how the Senate works.”
But speaking with reporters moments after the Senate adjourned, Chappelle-Nadal struck a more combative tone, saying she intends to delay the bill’s passage if it comes before the Senate again with changes from the House because she opposes the punitive damage caps and the motivating factor standard.
“That is something that I will continue to fight,” said Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County. “I plan to do whatever I need to do to make sure that motivating and contributing factor is dealt with. We’re not ok with the bill, even with the changes that I made today. We’re not ok with it at all.”
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar bill last year, which Republicans managed to pass despite similar Democratic opposition. Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in the Senate, but not the House.
Chappelle-Nadal, who is black, spoke against the original bill for about 10 hours Wednesday. She said the motivating factor standard would make it more difficult for discrimination victims to get a trial or recover damages.
“This bill is taking away one of the fundamental issues that people of color and women have fought for so hard,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m not sitting down. I’m going to use all my rights that I am given under the rules.”
Republicans have said the Senate bill would make the state more appealing to businesses.
Changes to the discrimination laws could affect what businesses pay for employment-practices liability insurance, a type of insurance that covers companies in cases of wrongful actions such as discrimination.
Lager said Wednesday afternoon that his legislation would not take away discrimination protections, but would instead make Missouri law more similar to federal discrimination laws, which do use the motivating factor standard.
“Everything in this law takes us back to the federal law that Martin Luther King Jr. applauded as it was signed,” he said. “To insinuate anything other than that is just not factual.”
The House also briefly debated a workplace discrimination bill Wednesday before setting it aside and quitting for the week. House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said he hoped Republicans could reach compromise with Democrats. But the prospects of that remained uncertain.
Members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus denounced the fact that the legislation was being debated on the first day of Black History Month.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)