Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Courage in Politics: Doing the Right Thing Even If It Is Hard

This particular blog is intended for the legislators considering SB 188 and HB 205.  I imagine that people don't run for public office unless they have a desire to seek the public good.  It is inn the context of seeking the public good that I write this.

There is one very satisfying aspect of representing people in employment discrimination and whistle-blower cases, representing a person who has found his or her voice, a person who taps into the braver part of his or her personality.  Many people have beefs about something at work, but it is only a select few who we represent.  It is only a select few who have been wronged legally and have the fortitude to go forward. We represent people who have real cases for illegal discrimination and whistleblowing.  The ones we choose to represent have courage because it is hard to buck the status quo, to complain to or about ones boss, to rock the boat. I have always appreciated how courageous our clients are because going forward in a case like this is not easy. Discrimination and whistleblower claims are special because people who display the fortitude to go forward oftentimes go forward because they don't want what happened to them to happen to someone else.  Discrimination and whistleblower cases help society; they help each one of us. If it had not been for the courage of Rosa Parks, who knows where the Civil Rights movement would have gone.  If Dr. King had not taken up for Mrs. Parks, this might be a different society.  If someone had come forward to report Bernie Madoff, American society would have been better.

That leads me to SB 188, which limits the rights of people to go forward and bring cases of discrimination and whistleblowing.  The opposition claims, "We aren't eliminating these cases, we are just making them conform to federal standards."  However, that statement is not true.  Many courageous people will not be heard if this law were passed.  There are three parts of the bill which are troublesome - the elimination of individual liability, caps as low as $50,000, and passing a written whistleblower law that curtails the common law.

As an example of what this bill will do, I want to tell you about a couple of cases I have had.  I represented two women at a small not-for-profit business who reported that their boss was stealing from the company and downloading pornography to his computer.  This business had fewer than 6 employees and was run by a board of directors.  The boss was using the company credit card to purchase Christmas gifts for his family, buy electronics, etc.  One woman had been with the company for 26 years, the other for 18 years. Their terminations were emotionally devastating to both women, as they had put their hearts and souls into their work.  The first complainer was fired, the second was forced out.  The board of directors, all physicians, condoned the conduct and refused to take action except to authorize our clients terminations.  We had to sue the executive director individually.  The board of directors took no action against the executive director until after the second trial.  Finally, years later, he was fired.  By then, there was a judgment of $350,000 against the company and $200,000 against the executive director.  It was not until the second case settled in the middle of trial for $500,000 that the board took any action.  My old boss used to say, "People do the right thing if you make them."  The case got publicity, membership in the association which was the company faltered.  The company almost went under, but it did not.  When the membership learned of what the board had condoned, they were upset.  The problem was management and the board and what they had condoned.  Because of the lawsuits, the problems were fixed.  The executive director was fired, the board began to undertake their fiduciary duty and the company was saved.  If their had been a $50,000 cap on compensatory damages, which is what the new bills provides, this case probably would not have seen the light of day.  The litigation took years.  There is no provision for attorneys fees.  I fear our clients would have thrown in the towel.  The company was made better because of the lawsuit.

Likewise, I have represented women and girls in sexual harassment cases.  There are not near as many sexual harassment cases today because of the brave women who brought cases before and helped companies realize that sexual harassment training is essential.  Now, sexual harassment occurs in fast food restaurants with young girls.  They are young and naive.  They could be anyone's daughter.  Without the ability to name individual defendants, these companies fold and the owners open under a different entity's name.  Women are traumatized by sexual assaults and with this bill, women and girls will have little recourse.  The companies fold and open under a different name.  The only way to get accountability is to keep the individuals in as defendants.

I know our jury system is not perfect, but it is the best system in the world.  Missouri businesses are important, but not at the expense of our civil rights.  Plus, I know of not one company that has decided to locate in another state because of Missouri discrimination laws.  I am asking each of the Legislators, when deciding how to vote on these bills, to dig deep and vote your conscience.  It is hard to buck the system, especially when there is pressure to vote one way.  This issue is important. Please be proud of your vote.  

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