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House Republicans eye strengthening definition of employment discrimination

Marshall Griffin|St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri House is considering a bill that would make it harder to prove discrimination when someone is fired from work.

Under the measure, an employee would have to prove his or her race or gender was the main factor for dismissal. That’s a shift from the current law, which says an employee only has to prove race or gender contributed to his or her dismissal.

Republican lawmakers sent similar bills to former Gov. Jay Nixon several years ago, but he vetoed them each time.

Joseph Sklansky, an attorney with Washington University's office of general counsel, testified Monday in favor of the bill. He said businesses are unfairly punished under the current definition of discrimination.

"The result is a regime where allegations trump evidence, where proof that the defendant actually caused the alleged harm is no longer required, and where defendants have no choice but to either pay money to settle baseless allegations, or else expend substantial financial and other resources to defend such claims all the way through trial and appeal," he said. Sklansky noted that his testimony was his own and did not reflect the university's position.

Opponents argue that the bill would weaken Missouri’s discrimination definition and make it harder for the "little guy" to obtain justice.

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, criticized the bill for containing exceptions for who can be sued in various situations.

"Let's say one of your constituents calls you up, and they say 'I work at this golf club, and my supervisor said if I don't perform this sexual favor, he's going to fire me. What can I do?' If this bill takes effect, now she can't only not sue her employer, she wouldn't be able to sue the country club, either," Ellebracht said. "What's her recourse?"

He also said the bill could limit a fired employee's legal options.

"They're then forced to go to federal court, which is great if you're an attorney who's licensed to practice in that federal district," he said. "You're going to be able to charge far more for those attorneys' fees."

The House Special Committee on Litigation Reform took no action on the bill Monday.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:@MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.