Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keep Missouri Workers Free From Unlawful Discrimination and Retaliation

Living in the state of Missouri has always made me proud. We're the "Show-Me State," home of Harry Truman, the man who integrated the military, among many other honorable decisions. Our discrimination laws have been fair, letting Missouri juries filled with Missouri citizens who have the Show-Me wisdom decide not only whether a worker has suffered from unlawful discrimination, but also what the monetary compensation should be to try to make that worker whole.

And Missouri juries get it right most of the time, using their innate intelligence and common sense. Plaintiffs lose something like 40% of the time. Punitive damages are awarded in rare cases only. Missouri judges follow a law that was passed almost 50 years ago during the Civil Rights movement. As the song from"Oklahoma" goes, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City ..." (and St. Louis, and Springfield, and Columbia and everywhere else in Missouri.)

Now, some in the Missouri legislature want to strip Missouri workers of some of this state's hard fought civil rights. The proposed changes do the following:

1. Throw Missouri citizens into federal courts because judges in the federal courts have consistently thrown cases out of court. By eliminating individual liability in the law, non-Missouri corporations, who benefit from the change, can force all lawsuits into federal courts headquartered in Kansas City or St. Louis, providing no local control for Missouri citizens.

2. Require caps on damages modeled after caps in federal courts that were set and have not been adjusted since 1991, some twenty years ago.

3. Gut workers' ability to bring necessary whistleblower cases by subjecting them to the caps and requiring unreasonable proof.  This law is proposed and backed by one particular company because it's lawyers are upset that a verdict was rendered against the company some eight years ago.

It's hard to talk about these changes in the abstract, so I'll try to illustrate the impact these changes would have on one of my clients.

My client is a 17 year old girl who at age 16 went to work at a restaurant to help save money for her dream to attend art college. She did not know what danger she was walking into when she accepted the job. Her supervisor was a serial sexual molester. The owner of the restaurant knew that the supervisor had raped a girl who was previously employed, but kept the molester supervising young women. My client, young and naive, knew nothing of her supervisor's past problems. When he sexually molested my client, my client did not know what to do or to whom to turn. She did what most young girls do, nothing -  because she was so afraid of losing her job and that she would be blamed as somehow enticing this pervert. Finally, when it got to be too much for her to bear, she told the owner's daughter, who said, "Oh, he's done this before." When the bosses found out, they told my client not to tell anyone. Ultimately, several months down the road, she did tell her parents.  It was not until my client's parents found out that anything was really done.

My client's parents took their daughter to the police station and this supervisor ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery, with a suspended imposition of sentence. No registering as a sexual offender, no jail time, and his record is totally cleared as if he was never found guilty as long as he gets through his probation .

In the meantime, my client has suffered as a victims of sexual assault do. If this law passes, she will be limited in damages to $50,000 to repay her for the attacks because of the size of the company; she will not be able to sue the man who molested her for sexual harassment since he is an individual; and she may have the entire case thrown out of court because of peculiar twists in federal law.

Is this how Missouri really wants to treat it's citizens? I know businesses do not like to get sued. No one likes being sued. But, the citizens of Missouri have the intelligence and common sense to decide when someone has been done wrong. Our jury system is the underpinning of our democracy. In Missouri, we need not distrust our citizens to do the right thing.

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