Bill would broaden discrimination law

Vic Vela

A bill that would broaden damage awards available to Colorado employees who sue over discrimination in the workplace is making its way through the state Legislature.

But while Democrats are hailing House Bill 1136 as a victory for employee protection, Republicans are blasting the legislation as a job-killing bill that creates a boon for trial lawyers.

The bill passed the House on April 19 on a 35-28 vote, following debate that lasted several hours over two voting days.

All Republicans voted against the legislation, with Democratic Rep. Mike McLauchlan of Durango joining them in opposition.

The “Job Protection and Civil Rights Employment Act of 2013” particularly would affect small businesses that have workforces of 14 or fewer people. Under the bill, employees at companies of all sizes could collect punitive and compensatory damages in state court, as well as recoup legal fees in civil rights cases.

Right now, employees at small-sized businesses are only afforded remedies that allow them to be “made whole” following successful discrimination lawsuits, such as earning back pay, or getting their jobs back.

Republicans mocked the bill’s intent, even at one time offering an amendment to re-title the bill the “Trial Lawyer Employment Act of 2013,” arguing that the bill will end up filling the pockets of lawyers who take these kind of cases to court.

Republicans also called the legislation an “anti-jobs bill” that could lead to devastating effects on small businesses that are forced to pay out thousands of dollars in punitive damages.

“It’s the difference between being in business and being out of business,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, during an April 17 House floor debate.

Republicans also said that the bill is unnecessary, arguing that Colorado discrimination lawsuits are rare and that the legislation just begs for more frivolous lawsuits to end up in court.

“Punitive damages are just a way to pile on a situation where there are other remedies in place,” said Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton.

But bill co-sponsor Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, said courts always have discretion in these matters and that employees need greater protection than what current law allows.

“It’s not like courts are going to be handing out meal tickets on every single case,” he said. “This isn’t an anti-jobs bill. It’s a preservation of jobs bill.”

Democrats amended the bill to cap damages at $25,000 per case for small businesses that have between five and 14 employees, and $10,000 for companies with fewer than five workers. Republican efforts to amend the bill to prevent the legislation from affecting companies with 10 or fewer employees were unsuccessful.

The bill now heads to the Senate.