DENVER – The House passed a bill that would subject small businesses to thousands of dollars in costs for defending and potentially paying damages for employee discrimination lawsuits. The Democrats, however, expressly scrapped a Republican legislator’s amendment to subject state and municipal governments to the same standard.
“Discrimination is wrong. It’s wrong when it’s done by private enterprise, it’s wrong when it’s done by individuals, and it’s wrong when it’s done by government,” declared former House Speaker Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch).
McNulty said the bill, an Act of Remedies in Employment Discrimination Cases, is inequitable because it applies to very small businesses but exempts state and local governments and associated agencies.
“What we have before us now is a bill that endorses state-sponsored discrimination,” said McNulty. “That’s wrong.”
Republicans argued against House Bill 1136 because it would exempt government entities, impose excessive liabilities for small businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and force employers to pay their attorney fees even if a case is deemed frivolous, dismissed or defeated unless a judge decides otherwise.
Yet, the Democrat-sponsored bill passed on a 35 – 28 vote on Friday, and now moves to the Senate for consideration.
An amendment to apply the bill’s provisions to state and local governments was introduced by McNulty during the bill’s second reading Wednesday. It was narrowly defeated after an impassioned speech in opposition by the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton), a civil rights attorney.
“I don’t think that Representative Salazar believes that discrimination is right,” said McNulty, but the exclusion of governments is “hypocrisy.”
“My hypocrisy?!” exclaimed Salazar. “Sir, if you were to actually get online… to see the things that I have done on behalf of civil rights, I think you’d probably sit there and be quiet.”
“Instead of impugning me, instead of talking about me as a hypocrite, I think you would see the number of cases that I’ve brought against the state ofColoradofor those who have suffered discrimination,” said Salazar.
“During the debate, there was some fun poked at this bill as being a trial lawyer’s employment bill,” said Salazar, who declared that ridiculed and trivialized civil rights attorneys and victims they had represented.
Salazar reeled off a list of discrimination examples, which include racial epitaphs and women having to “endure boorish male coworkers who fancy themselves as characters in the (TV) show Mad Men.”
“Representative Salazar, you can shelve your indignation,” declared McNulty. “Your words ring hollow.”
“It is wrong. So why then do you endorse discrimination by the state of Colorado?” asked McNulty.
Salazar maintained that he exempted state and local governments from the bill because of high court rulings based primarily on state statutes. But, McNulty countered that those laws to protect state and local governments were enacted by past legislatures – and this legislature could change them.
“We can change the law,” declared McNulty, an attorney.
The bill allows employees to sue for unfair employment practices, including sexual orientation and age discrimination for those 70 years.
The bill could force small employers to pay punitive and compensatory damages for “emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life” and other losses as well as thousands of dollars in attorney fees and costs to defend themselves.
If found guilty, a business, which employs fewer than five employees 20 or more calendar weeks in a year, would be subject to paying $10,000 in damages to the victim and potentially more than $100,000 for both the defendant and plaintiff’s attorney fees and court costs.
An employer of five but fewer than 15 employees could incur the plaintiff and defendant attorney fees and court costs as well as $25,000 in damages. The employers could also be forced to rehire employees, pay back wages with interest, and relief.
Discrimination lawsuits against businesses with 15 or more employees are applicable under federal laws that exempted smaller enterprises.
But, Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) said lawsuits can be filed on questionable grounds, and that small employers would be forced to pay exorbitant fees to defend the accusations.
“That is no joke! That is no joke when we put people out of business,” declared Gardner, an attorney.
Rep. Amy Stephens (R-Colorado Springs) agreed and said it’s time for the legislature to stop applying laws to the private business sector but exempting state government.
“We let the state off the hook for everything,” said Stephens. “It is not okay.”