Expanded Violation Doctrine in the Missouri Court of Appeals

The Missouri Court of Appeals has expanded the continuing violation doctrine to apply to more than just harassment, hostile workplace, and constructive discharge claims; it will apply to gender discrimination claims as well. 

This expansion comes after the court’s ruling in Plengemeier v. Thermadyne Industries Inc.  In Plengemeier, the appellant argued that the trial court’s dismissal of her claim of sex discrimination was in error because the trial court ignored her claim that the discrimination was a “continuing violation.”

In Plengemeier, the appellant worked six years for Thermadyne as a national accounts manager.  From 2004-2008, she received high marks in her performance reviews.  In 2009 she applied for a newly created director’s position.  Weeks later, defendant hired another applicant from outside the company whose qualifications were arguably not as good as those of the appellant.  Thereafter, plaintiff learned she had been paid less and received fewer benefits than a similarly situated male employee who had less seniority.  Plaintiff resigned, with her last day of work being January 13th 2010.

In April 2010, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (“MCHR”).  On January 10th 2012, 90 days after she received her right to sue letter from the MCHR, she filed suit against defendant for discriminating against her based on gender, alleging a continuing violation that lasted for four years.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss based on the grounds that her last reported incident occurred two years before she filed suit and as such was barred by the Missouri Human Rights Act’s two-year statute of limitations.  In her response, plaintiff argued that the continuing violation doctrine kept her claim viable.  The trial court did not agree, and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Missouri Court of Appeals found otherwise, holding that the continuing violation doctrine could be invoked as an exception to the MHRA statute of limitations if a plaintiff can demonstrate that the continued violation was part of an ongoing practice or pattern of discrimination by her employer.  To invoke the continuing violation doctrine, a plaintiff must allege that at least one act occurred within the filing period, and she must establish that the disparate treatment is comprised of a series of interrelated events.

For employers, this ruling should come as no surprise.  Employers should evaluate their pay practices to ensure that there are no clear or demonstrable discrepancies between similarly qualified and similarly performing individuals, even if those practices may have started more than two years ago.  To discuss this case and any questions you may have, please feel free to contact the labor and employment attorneys at McMahon Berger, located in Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri.

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