Missouri Supreme Court Holds that an Employee’s Mere “Request for Accommodation” of a Disability Does Not Support a Retaliation Claim Under the MHRA

On August 28, 2017, several new, employer-friendly provisions of the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) took effect. Since then, the Missouri Supreme Court has issued a string of employment law opinions favorable to employers. Most recently, the Supreme Court struck a victory for employers defending retaliation claims asserted under the MHRA based upon requests for accommodation of disability. In the case Li Lin v. Ellis, SC 97641, 2020 WL 203145 (January 14, 2020)*, the Court held as an issue of first impression that an employee’s mere request for accommodation of a disability was not sufficient to support a retaliation claim.

In this case, the plaintiff, a University laboratory researcher, was hired in 2004. Plaintiff subsequently began experiencing chronic back pain and was diagnosed with two herniated discs. Plaintiff informed her supervisor of her diagnosis and requested accommodation to avoid tasks that aggravated her condition. Her supervisor provided the requested accommodation and later provided an additional accommodation when her back pain worsened.

In mid-2012, Plaintiff had a disagreement with a colleague and a complaint was filed against her. Plaintiff’s supervisor asked human resources to initiate a process “with a view to terminating” plaintiff’s position. At this time, Plaintiff’s supervisor was also informed that funding for plaintiff’s microarray work was set to expire in December 2012 and would not be renewed. In July 2012, plaintiff met with her supervisor, a University research administrator, and a human resources representative and discussed plaintiff’s back condition, work restrictions, and the microarray grant funding issues.

In August 2012, plaintiff’s supervisor formally notified plaintiff her position would be eliminated in November 2012 when the microarray grant expired. Plaintiff thereafter applied for several positions within the University but was not interviewed or offered any position. Plaintiff’s employment was terminated on November 30, 2012. Plaintiff subsequently filed a timely Charge of Discrimination and then filed suit in state court. Plaintiff claimed MHRA retaliation against her supervisor and the University on the theory that her claim of a reasonable accommodation of her herniated discs was protected activity. The jury found no liability against plaintiff’s supervisor but returned a verdict against the University. The University appealed.

RSMo. §213.070.1(2) prohibits employers from retaliating or discriminating against an employee for “oppos[ing] any practice prohibited by this chapter” or because such person “has filed a complaint, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in any investigation, proceeding or hearing conducted pursuant to this chapter.”

Acknowledging the federal circuits’ uniform agreement that a cause of action for retaliation under the ADA exists for merely requesting an accommodation of a disability, the Missouri Supreme Court nevertheless found that a mere request for an accommodation of a disability did not constitute “opposition to an unlawful discriminatory practice” or “participation in proceedings authorized by the MHRA” in accordance with the plain language of RSMo. §213.070.1(2). The Court noted that plaintiff’s requests for accommodation were met at every stage without any need for medical documentation. When medical documentation was requested and provided in July 2012, plaintiff’s request was honored until she was terminated.

Prior to the Ellis decision, an employee’s mere request for accommodation of a disability placed employers in a difficult position. Even if the employer satisfied the employee’s request for accommodation and the employee could not otherwise prove disability discrimination, the request for accommodation itself could have served as a basis for liability if any future adverse action was taken against the employee. With the Ellis decision, the Missouri Supreme Court has placed employers in a safer position to accommodate the legitimate needs of disabled employees while preserving employers’ discretion to discipline or terminate employees for non-discriminatory reasons should the need arise. However, it should be noted that Missouri employees may still pursue “request-for-accommodation retaliation” claims in federal court.

*Note that the Ellis opinion has not yet been released for publication and is subject to revision or withdrawal until formally published in the law reports.

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Kerri Forsythe

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