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Thursday, January 23, 2020

MHRA Retaliation Protections are More Limited than the Federal ADA

On January 14, 2020, in a case where our firm represented the employer, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) does not create a cause of action where an employer allegedly retaliated against an employee for requesting an accommodation for a disability. Lin v. Ellis, SC97641.

 The employee in the case, Lin, requested not to do certain workplace tasks as an accommodation for alleged back pain. In 2012, her employment ended. Plaintiff asserted that her termination was retaliation for her requests for an accommodation for a disability. Defendant asserted that her employment was terminated because of lack of research grant funding for the laboratory research project she had been working on.

The Missouri Supreme Court did not address this factual dispute, but decided the case on a question of law: does the MHRA provide a cause of action for retaliation for requesting accommodation for a disability? The Court held it does not, based on the Court’s reading of the MHRA statute, which states that retaliation is prohibited where an employee has opposed a practice prohibited by the MHRA or where an employee has participated in an investigation pursuant to the MHRA. These two categories, “opposition” and “participation,” are the “protected activities” that can form the basis for a retaliation claim. But in Lin, the plaintiff did not engage in either of those activities. She merely requested an accommodation, which constitutes neither “opposition” to a practice nor “participation” in any investigation or proceeding. Therefore, the Court held, plaintiff failed to state a claim and the trial court should have entered judgment as a matter of law in favor of defendant.

Notably, this holding differs from court decisions under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) holding that the ADA does cover a request for accommodation as a protected activity for retaliation purposes. The Missouri Supreme Court reviewed these cases and concluded that the reasoning is not applicable under the MHRA, given the particular language of the Missouri statute and the interpretive rules that the Court must follow in applying the statute.

For employers, the immediate impact of this decision may be limited. Employees are still protected from retaliation under federal law (assuming it applies to the employer), and therefore employer practices probably should not change. Over the longer term, however, this decision is likely to benefit employers because it may cause employees to consider filing some disability or retaliation cases in federal court — a forum many employers prefer for the defense of such claims. Moreover, the case is a significant development in MHRA case law because it shows the willingness of Missouri courts to draw a distinction between federal and state law even when it favors defendants.

The foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation and should not be relied on as such.  Please contact one of our labor and employment lawyers if you have any questions.

This update was prepared by Charles S. Elbert and D. Leo Human.


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