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Missouri Woman’s $100K Jury Verdict Shows How Sex Discrimination Takes Many Forms

Employees at Dierbergs in Ballwin bag customer groceries on March 21, 2020. Local grocery stores have been particularly busy in recent weeks, as shoppers rush to stock up on essentials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
File Photo/ David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Grocery store employees ring up purchases in suburban St. Louis in March 2020. A cashier at a grocer in Greene County, Missouri, recently won a jury verdict against her employer.

A Greene County woman argued that she was fired from her job as a grocery store cashier for being ugly. A jury in Springfield agreed — and, earlier this month, awarded her $100,000.

That’s even though Missouri is an “at-will employment” state.

“Absent a contractual provision, anybody can get fired for anything at any time, but for the reason of being a member of a protected class,” said attorney Eric Banks of Banks Law LLC on St. Louis on the Air on Monday. “My employer would have the right to fire me because I was ugly, because I was follically challenged, or because I was tall, but that employer could not fire me for protected-class status” — being over 40, say, or being Black.

And sex, as Banks noted, is a protected class — which is where things got complicated for Country Fresh Inc., the employer being sued in Greene County.

“If I could prove I was really being fired not because I was ugly, but because I was a female, and males who looked functionally the equivalent of me, i.e., not centerfold material or a product of Central Casting, [were not], that is sex discrimination,” Banks explained.

The discussion came as part of St. Louis on the Air’s monthly Legal Roundtable, which delves into matters involving the state’s judicial system.

In the Greene County case, all three panelists agreed that the woman’s lawyers had successfully applied the state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex to a case that on its face dealt only with aesthetics. (Country Fresh Inc. has said that it did not fire the woman for being ugly, but rather in response to customer complaints.)

“The comments about a woman’s appearance, whether the woman is ugly or beautiful, they could equally be considered sex discrimination,” said Bill Freivogel, a professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “That’s what happened here.”

The panel also discussed a lawsuit challenging the state law barring plant-based products from being marketed as “meat.” The ACLU of Missouri argued the case in federal court last week on behalf of the company that makes Tofurky. It says that Missouri’s 2018 law is an unconstitutional chilling of its free speech rights.

“This is part of a larger issue, as more and more people become vegetarians or vegans,” noted Mark Smith, a vice chancellor at Washington University and dean of career services. “You’ve got a lot of laws being passed in different states trying to protect different industries…. This is another aspect of it. The argument is that corporations have free speech rights under the First Amendment.”

That’s why a federal judge stopped a similar law in Arkansas, as Freivogel noted. “Particularly when you have a vague law that potentially criminalizes speech,” he said, courts see First Amendment issues.

“I don’t see this law being upheld,” Smith added.

The panel also discussed the lawsuit filed against St. Louis County Executive Sam Page for his order shutting down indoor dining for four weeks and a lawsuit filed by two Black police lieutenants against the St. Louis County Police Department. The officers alleged that they were transferred to undesirable shifts as retaliation for their union organizing.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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