First, I must lodge a disclaimer. This blog is not a substitute for legal advice and does not establish any attorney-client relationship. With that being said, what do you do if you think you are or have been discriminated against at work? What is discrimination? Who can make a claim of employment discrimination?
In Missouri, as in other states and in the United States, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee in a protected class. Discrimination includes harassment against employees because the employees are also in a protected class. These laws originally stem from realizations in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that it is unfair to discriminate based on race and gender. An employer must have at least 6 employees in Missouri before Missouri employment laws apply.
In Missouri, workers have protection against discrimination based on race, sex, disability, national origin, age (over40), religion or creed. These are the protected classes. A worker who feels he or she has been fired, harassed, demoted, not considered for a promotion, not hired, or otherwise discriminated against must file a Charge of Discrimination with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Missouri Commission on Human Rights within 180 days of the discrimination. After a certain period of time either or both of those agencies will issue a right-to-sue letter and a lawsuit must be filed within 90 days.
In Missouri, workers can file their lawsuits in state courts and are entitled to jury trials. For the past seven years, some members of the Missouri Legislature have tried to limit the civil rights of Missouri workers, not just in discrimination cases, but also for Whistleblowers and even for people who get hurt on the job. In 2012 and 2011, Governor Nixon vetoed bills that would substantially restrict the rights of workers. So far this session, Representative Kevin Elmer has already filed two bills to curtail workers rights in discrimination and whistleblower cases. Hopefully, the good people of Missouri and the Governor will see fit to continue to defeat this legislation which is backed by big businesses and their millionaire/billionaire owners.
What is discrimination? Discrimination can come in many forms. I have tried cases in which women were grabbed in the crotch, rubbed against, fondled, groped, in addition to being denied pay and promotions. I have tried cases where African-Americans were called the "n" word, nooses were hung in break rooms, and in addition to being denied pay and promotions. I have tried cases where people over 40 were demoted or terminated because of their age, with employers claiming they were too "slow" or must be ready for retirement. I have tried cases where workers were forced out of their jobs because they had multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and the like, even though they were very capable of doing their jobs. I have tried cases where Caucasians and men were also victims of discrimination because of race and gender. Race and sex discrimination are not restricted to any one race or only one gender.
I've heard people say that discrimination is a thing of the past. I wish it were so. I would happily find something different to do. When I was growing up, racial epithets were common, want ads were divided by men and women, and women were excluded from service on juries. Those things are gone, racial slurs are usually made more privately and jobs are filled based on gender, but nobody admits it in the newspaper. Discrimination is more subtle, but unfortunately it still exists.
Is it hard to go through litigation and trial in discrimination cases? You bet. Most cases are settled, but many are tried. Some defense lawyers, at the behest of their clients, resort to what we call "slut" or "nut" defenses, claiming our clients asked for harassment or our clients are bad employees or are crazy. I am happy to say that, in a good case, these defenses do not work. But, being called a lazy, crazy worker or worse is difficult to hear at best. However, when my clients fight for a just cause and justice prevails, I see how many of my clients change. Not only have they fought for themselves, but also for others. I watch as many of my clients experience a tremendous load lift from their shoulders and I get to see the courageous among them become light and free again.
If you feel that you are being unlawfully harassed or discriminated against, you have some hard decisions. Many people just take it. It is hard to fight back. But for those that do, there is the hope of a better life, a better self-image and a better legacy for ones children. Hopefully, one day soon, Dr. King's words will come true and people will truly be judged, "by the content of their character and not the color of their skin." Or by their gender, age, disability or religion, as well.