Missouri Supreme Court Eases Burden Of Proof For Retaliatory Discharge Claims

The Supreme Court reversed 16 years of precedent on a worker’s burden of proof to establish retaliatory discrimination after exercising his rights under the Missouri Worker’s Compensation Act.  A worker no longer has to show that discrimination was an exclusive factor in a termination but only has to show that the employer’s motivation was discriminatory in any way.   Templemire v W&M Welding, Inc., No. SC 93132 (Mo. 4-15-2014); 2014 MO Lexis 111 (lexis.com), 2014 MO Lexis 111 (Lexis Advance).

 Claimant injured his foot in 2006 resulting in permanent restrictions.  The employer accommodated claimant with a new job which it had not done with other employees.  The relationship with his supervisor was contentious as claimant obtained new permanent restrictions.  When claimant refused to perform a task and insisted he was still on his break, the employer fired him for insubordination.

Claimant attempted to establish that the employer’s motivation for discharging him was discriminatory.  The employer reportedly complained to claimant and others about his foot injury, that he belittled other workers, that he discharged workers after comp injuries, and that the discharge in this case was inconsistent with the employer’s own progressive discipline policy.

Section 287.780 was amended in 1973 and provides a private cause of action:   “No employer or agent shall discharge or in any way discriminate against any employee for exercising any of his rights under this chapter. Any employee who has been discharged or discriminated against shall have a civil action for damages against his employer.”

The Supreme Court for 16 years indicated the worker had the burden of proof to show discrimination was an exclusive factor for a discharge.  The Supreme Court reversed its earlier opinions and concluded for the first time and it finds“plain language” intent to impose a lower evidentiary burden based on the phrase “in any way” using strict construction.

Judge Draper noted that legislature after 1973 expanded various causes of action for employment discrimination that demonstrated a general legislative intent to broaden and not narrow access to the courts to “remedy the evil” of ‘illegal, insidious and reprehensible” acts by an employer.   The decision discusses the lower standard is consistent with the burden of proof under the MHRA and with the MAI. If the legislature didn’t like the decision they could invoke their legislative intent and abrogate it (which wouldn’t be the first time). 

A dissent argued that the majority abandoned stare decisis and adopts a new statutory interpretation of an identical statute that the court had already considered and rejected twice.  The statutory language never provided and still does not provide a causation standard.  The dissent argued that the General Assembly repealed 35 sections of the Missouri worker’s compensation law in 2005 and did not disturb the earlier case law that required exclusive intent. 

The case has huge implications for employers who take or threaten any tangible employment actions against workers with open cases.  Although the Act has never guaranteed employment simply because someone has a claim, §287.780 (lexis.com), §287.780 (Lexis Advance), now raise the calculus for settling cases when the claimant has not returned to the same job for any reason. The case clearly makes summary judgment harder to resolve such discrimination  claims.  At a minimum, the case is a warning to avoid the politically incorrect “damn the torpedoes” approach of human resource management in the case in which the worker introduced evidence that his supervisor cursed and belittled him  and baited him to sue him because that’s “what he pays his premiums for….”

Source: Martin Klug, Huck, Howe & Tobin. Read Martin Klug’s Mo. Workers’ Comp Alerts.

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