On April 25, 2018, the Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments in R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District that could have far-reaching implications for the civil rights protections granted to the state’s transgender community. The judges were asked to determine whether the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) prohibits discrimination based on gender identity even though gender identity is not specifically mentioned in the Act. Last June, McMahon Berger summarized the issues and arguments in a blog that can be found here: https://www.mcmahonberger.com/transgender-students-bathrooms-and-the-missouri-human-rights-act/.
What should be noteworthy to all Missouri public entities and their attorneys is how the State of Missouri argued its case. The State not only argued gender identity is not covered by the MHRA, but also stressed that the Supreme Court need not reach the merits of this issue because government entities are not required to provide public accommodations to individuals in Missouri. In other words, the State argued Blue Springs R-IV School District may not be sued for alleged public accommodation violations under the MHRA. Although at first glance the State’s argument seems counterintuitive, the plain and ordinary language of the MHRA may support the State’s argument.
It is commonly understood that it is illegal for employers to discriminate based upon protected characteristics regarding terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. In the MHRA, “employers” are defined as including “the state, or any political or civil subdivision thereof.” Since the enactment of the MHRA, the state and local governments of Missouri have commonly been sued in their capacity as employers. The question now raised by the State is whether Missouri government entities may be sued outside their capacity as employers.
R.M.A. contends that the school district, a government entity, violated § 213.065.1-2, RSMo, which makes it unlawful “for any person” to deprive an individual of the “full and equal use and enjoyment within this state of any place of public accommodation.” Unlike the definition of employer, the definition of “person” does not include “the state, or any political or civil subdivision thereof.” Instead, the term “person” is defined as including “one or more individuals, corporations, partnerships, associations, organizations, labor organizations, legal representatives, mutual companies, joint stock companies, trusts, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, receivers, fiduciaries, or other organized groups of persons.” The State argued R.M.A.’s claims for public accommodation discrimination must be dismissed because the MHRA’s public accommodation provision does not clearly and unambiguously include the state and local governments of Missouri.
During the oral arguments, the Missouri Supreme Court posed the following question to the State: Does the State’s argument permit a Missouri public entity to post a sign at its facility that says “Whites only?” The short answer is “heck no!” because even if an individual would not have an actionable accommodation claim against a public entity under the MHRA, the individual undoubtedly may seek and obtain relief under federal public accommodation laws for such a despicable act. In sum, the Missouri legislature determined that lawsuits against public entities (i.e., the taxpayers of Missouri) for alleged public accommodation violations should proceed in federal court under federal law, and not in state court under the MHRA.
The bottom line is that any Missouri public entity currently facing a lawsuit or complaint for a public accommodation violation should be aware that the Missouri Supreme Court will decide this crucial issue within the next few months, and McMahon Berger will be there to keep you up to speed. The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, for almost sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements