For the first time, the Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that an employee’s accommodation request alone is not enough to support a retaliation claim under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
In an unsigned opinion Jan. 14, the court unanimously reversed a judgment in favor of Li Lin, a former medical researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, after ruling she failed to submit a cognizable claim under the MHRA.
Lin was employed by the university from 1994 to 2012. She alleged that she was terminated after requesting an accommodation for chronic back pain. She sued her supervisor, Dr. Matthew J. Ellis, and the university in 2014.
In 2017, a St. Louis jury cleared Ellis of liability but awarded her $769,000 in damages against the university. After the trial, her recovery grew to more than $1.5 million with the addition of front pay and attorneys’ fees.
The university filed a post-trial motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. It alleged the sole claim Lin submitted to the jury failed to state a cognizable clause of action under the MHRA because a request for accommodation is not a protected action and cannot serve as the basis for a retaliation claim.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Christopher E. McGraugh overruled the motion, leading the university to appeal.
The university argued that the MHRA’s plain language does not authorize a claim of retaliation for merely requesting a disability accommodation.
In the opinion, the Missouri Supreme court said the question — whether an accommodation request is a protected activity under the MHRA — is an issue of first impression in Missouri.
The court said Lin cited several federal cases holding that disability accommodation requests are protected activity under federal law, and she urged the Court to adopt the reasoning of the federal courts.
The court recognized the federal courts’ adoption of a cause of action for merely requesting an accommodation request, but it said it is not bound by those cases when the analysis is not consistent with the language of the relevant MHRA statute, Section 213.070.1(2).
The court said it must construe the plain language adopted by the legislature.
“The plain language of section 213.070.1(2) prohibits retaliation by an employer when an employee ‘oppose[s] any practice prohibited by this chapter’ or when an employee ‘file[s] a complaint, testifie[s], assist[s], or participate[s] in any manner in any investigation, proceeding or hearing conducted pursuant to this chapter,’” the court said.
“Nothing in this language includes a retaliation claim based on a mere request for an accommodation.”
The court said it does not have the authority to read into the law a legislative intent that is contrary to its plain and ordinary meaning, nor can it rewrite the law “to provide Dr. Lin a cause of action where one does not exist.”
“Hence, this Court is constrained to find a mere request for an accommodation does not fall within the plain language of either the opposition or participation clause of section 213.070.1(2); therefore, Dr. Lin failed to state a claim for relief,” the court concluded.
James R. Layton of Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan & Jackstadt represented the university.
“The university is pleased with the outcome and appreciates the Supreme Court’s thoughtful analysis,” he said.
Jonathan Berns of Goldberg, Berns & Rich represented Lin. He could not be reached for comment.
The case is Lin v. Ellis et al., SC97641