Employment cases are governed by very strict rules. They are also difficult cases to prove and take significant time to resolve. Missouri is an at-will employment state. That means, as a general rule, that an employer may refuse to hire someone or terminate their employment for ANY reason–or even no reason at all. That means that being fired is not alone enough to support a claim for discrimination. But there are significant exceptions. The employer’s decision may not be based on sex, race, disability, religion, or national origin. An employer may also not retaliate against an employee for complaining of discrimination on these grounds.
Discrimination may take on many forms. Disparate treatment occurs when one class of people is treated differently because of the fact they they are part of a protected class of employees (a simplistic example is when members of one race are paid more or promoted more often than another). Disparate impact happens when the employer enforces rules that unfairly impact members of protected classes (for example, requiring all employees to bench press 200 pounds might negatively impact women more than men). But discrimination in the workplace may also be the product of the workplace environment. If employees engage in sexually or racially offensive conduct, and the employer fails to take steps to stop it, then the employee can allege that a hostile work environment has affected employment. Quitting because of the hostile environment is called a constructive discharge.
Employers have defenses to claims of discrimination. They may offer legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for their actions (based upon bona-fide job requirements, or problems with the employee that are unrelated to sex, race, disability, or religion). The employee must then show that the employer’s stated reasons for their action are pretextual.
Unlike most legal claims, a person claiming workplace discrimination may not run to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. First a charge of discrimination must be filed with the Missouri Human Rights Commission. This must be done within 180 days of the last discriminatory action. Failure to file the charge of discrimination may forever bar a legal claim. In some instances when a charge is filed after 180 days but before 300 days, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may invoke its jurisdiction. If and only if either a “Notice of Right to Sue” is issued–by either the state or federal commission–may a lawsuit be filed.
An employee alleging discrimination may claim lost wages and benefits, damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney fees.