On 26 February 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court extended legal protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in a case dealing with employment rights.

By: Corey Franklin and Jamie Mahler Westbrook

Firm: FordHarrison

In Harold Lampley and Rene Frost v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights (No. SC96828) Mr. Lampley alleged he was mistreated in the workplace because of his sexual orientation. Rene Frost, Lampley’s co-worker, also alleged she was mistreated because of her friendship with Lampley, whom she noted had non-stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave. The plaintiffs brought claims against the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Child Support Enforcement Division for unlawful harassment and retaliation under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). The Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) investigated their complaints, but terminated the proceedings after finding the complaints did not involve discrimination covered by the MHRA (that is, it mistakenly believed the complaint was based on Lampley’s sexual orientation). Lampley and Frost filed petitions for administrative review or, alternatively, a writ of mandamus (a remedy in which a court requires an administrative body or lower court to act in a particular way), asking the circuit court to direct the MCHR to issue right-to-sue letters (a document allowing an individual claiming discrimination to file a legal claim). The circuit court granted summary judgment to the MCHR after finding that Lampley and Frost failed to state a claim.

The MHRA does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, the MHRA explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sex. The plaintiffs relied on the US Supreme Court precedent that discriminating against someone because they do not align with stereotypes commonly associated with a specific sex (i.e. that women should date men) is the same thing as discriminating based on sex.

On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court found it was illegal for employers to discriminate against people who do not conform to gender stereotypes (that is, preconceived ideas how a person should look, dress, and act). In the opinion, Judge George W. Draper III stated:

‘[A]n employee who suffers an adverse employment decision based on sex-based stereotypical attitudes of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination. Sexual orientation is incidental and irrelevant to sex stereotyping. Sex discrimination is discrimination, it is prohibited by the Act, and an employee may demonstrate this discrimination through evidence of sexual stereotyping.’

The Court noted that because a Missouri regulation characterises sexual stereotyping as an unlawful hiring practice, it follows that sexual stereotyping during employment is an unlawful employment practice.

The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately reversed and remanded the case to the circuit court to instruct the MCHR to issue right-to-sue-letters to Lampley and Frost. It noted that the MCHR should have allowed Lampley and Frost to demonstrate whether the alleged sexual stereotyping motivated the employer’s alleged discriminatory conduct.

Employers’ Bottom Line

Although this decision does not hold that the MHRA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, they significantly expand the rights of employees who do not conform to gender-normative behaviour to pursue sex discrimination claims under the MHRA. Well-crafted policies and management training are crucial in minimising inappropriate workplace conduct and identifying it early to ensure matters are thoroughly investigated and addressed.