On January 14, 2020, an issue of first impression was presented to the Missouri Supreme Court: whether an employee’s accommodation request is a protected activity under the Missouri Human Rights Act. In a display of sound statutory construction, the Missouri Supreme Court found that an employee’s request to her employer for a work accommodation, standing alone, is not a protected activity under the Missouri Human Rights Act, and that consequently, it cannot provide the basis for a retaliation claim under the MHRA.
The Court reversed the circuit court’s judgment in favor of an employee, Li Lin, ruling her accommodation request was insufficient to support a retaliation claim under the MHRA and she had therefore failed to submit a cognizable claim.
Plaintiff Dr. Lin was a medical researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. During her employment, Dr. Lin began experiencing chronic back pain and was diagnosed with two herniated discs. The University accommodated her requests more than once for a different position, due to her back pain.
Dr. Ellis informed Dr. Lin that when the grant funding for her research project expired, her position would be eliminated. After the grant funding ceased later that year, Dr. Ellis was unsuccessful in his efforts to find work for Dr. Lin in another University laboratory that would accommodate her back restrictions. She was let go.
Dr. Lin filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, claiming that both Dr. Ellis and the University discriminated and retaliated against her because she engaged in a protected activity – requesting an accommodation. She then sued both Dr. Ellis and the University.
At trial, a jury found in favor of Dr. Lin, but not as to Dr. Ellis. The University filed a post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. It argued, in part, that Dr. Lin’s sole claim submitted to the jury failed to state a claim under the MHRA because a request for an accommodation is not a protected activity under section 213.070. Therefore, the University asserted, such a request could not serve as the basis for a retaliation claim. The circuit court denied the motion and the University appealed.
The Eastern District Court of Appeals reversed the judgment against Washington University, and remanded the case for a new trial. Dr. Lin ultimately filed an Application to Transfer in the Missouri Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court granted transfer, and Dr. Lin repeated there her argument that although a request for accommodation does not fall within the literal language of the section, the court should adopt the reasoning from federal courts, which have interpreted an analogous federal provision to provide a cause of action for such requests.
Acknowledging the issue was one of first impression, the Court rejected Dr. Lin’s argument, holding that it was constrained by the plain language in section 213.070, RSMo. A request for an accommodation, standing alone, is not among the protected activities described in either prong of section 213.070: 1) opposition to a practice prohibited by the MHRA; or, 2) filing of a complaint, testifying, assisting, or participating in any investigation, proceeding, or hearing conducted under the MHRA. The Court held that where the statute specifically listed a variety of protected activities, and a request for accommodation was not among them, it could not, in effect, add to the statute another activity that the legislature did not include.
Some concluding thoughts: First, the facts of this case had to have helped the University. As the Court recites, it accommodated Dr. Lin on more than one occasion without requiring her to obtain a physician’s statement about her ability to function. Although that approach may pose a challenge to an employer, it is, at least early on, a better course most of the time and should be implemented if practicable. Second, focusing on a legal point, the Court held that Plaintiff did not plead anywhere in her charge of discrimination or in her circuit court pleadings that her requests for accommodation were “in opposition to any unlawful practice” by the University. Yet, as the Court observed, this was her attempted characterization on appeal. Thus, the Court, may have been telling the parties, perhaps largely because this was an issue of first impression, that it must take the pleadings at face value. In an earlier time, such a statement may have signaled the Court’s willingness to entertain the issue again with different results. However, the facts of this case arose before the 2017 amendments to the MHRA, limiting its scope. And those amendments should operate to close that door. The fact that this opinion was issued “Per Curiam” may hint at a lack of unanimity here.