Missouri Court of Appeals Provides Guidance on Interlocutory Appeal Requirements and Pleadings Standards in an Employment Discrimination Case
ABSTRACT: The appellate court decision in this employment discrimination suit provides guidance to practitioners and businesses on Missouri’s interlocutory appeal requirements, and a reminder that employees do not always have to be the direct target of discrimination in order to be able to state a viable cause of action. Witnessing and experiencing a discriminatory work environment may be enough.
In Mathews, et al., v. Harley Davidson, et al., the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District overruled the trial court’s dismissal of claims alleging discrimination, hostile work environment, and aiding and abetting in violation of 213.070.1(1), RSMo, at the pleading stage.
The lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs was brought by eighteen black employees against their employers, Harley Davidson and Syncreon. The employees alleged they were subjected to race discrimination while employed at a Harley Davidson plant in Kansas City, Missouri. This appeal concerns the dismissal of all claims asserted by eleven of those plaintiffs for failure to state claims upon which relief could be granted. The trial court held Appellants did not sufficiently plead the elements for their race discrimination and hostile work environment claims. Because of that finding, it also held that their aiding and abetting claims were subject to dismissal, finding those claims required an underlying viable discrimination claim to be pled.
The Plant manufactured and assembled Harley Davidson merchandise. Syncreon provided contract workers to the Plant. Appellants alleged both Harley Davidson and Syncreon were joint employers. Harley Davidson’s employees were approximately 90% white, while Syncreon’s employees were approximately 90% black. Appellants alleged several racially charged incidents, summarized below:
- Syncreon hired a white male supervisor, even though Harley Davidson fired him for discriminating against black employees.
- The Plant had a barrier that physically divided Harley Davidson employees from Syncreon employees. Harley Davidson employees could go to the Syncreon side, but Syncreon employees were prohibited from crossing to the Harley Davidson side.
- There were separate bathrooms for Harley Davidson and Syncreon employees and Syncreon employees were barred from using the Harley Davidson bathroom.
- In the summer of 2017, a noose was found in the Syncreon women’s bathroom.
- In April 2018, a swastika and doll of a black woman hanging by a noose were discovered in the Syncreon women’s bathroom.
- In November 2018, one of the plaintiffs was assaulted by a white male coworker, who was never disciplined for the incident.
- In December 2018, in the presence of unnamed black employees, a white employee showed her coworkers a family photo that included confederate flags and people depicting racist signs.
- In January and February 2019, racist graffiti appeared in a bathroom used by Syncreon employees.
- In February 2019, another plaintiff, whose claims were not dismissed by the trial court, found a noose while working and complained to management. A different unnamed Syncreon employee witnessed a supervisor cut up the noose.
Appellants further alleged racially motivated insults were common at the Plant and, further, that neither Harley Davidson nor Syncreon took any disciplinary action based on any of the conduct alleged. The Plant ultimately closed in May 2019.
Dismissal of Claims
Appellants filed an Amended Petition in 2021, in response to which Harley Davidson and Syncreon filed partial motions to dismiss, arguing Appellants’ claims for race discrimination, hostile work environment, and the separate claims for aiding and abetting against Harley Davidson and Syncreon failed to allege facts sufficient to state those claims. The trial court granted the dismissal of the race discrimination and hostile work environment claims, but initially denied the dismissal of the aiding and abetting claims.
Harley Davidson and Syncreon filed separate motions for clarification of that Order, arguing a “viable discrimination claim is a prerequisite to a claim of aiding and abetting discrimination.” Ultimately, the trial court agreed and clarified the Order, granting the dismissal of the aiding and abetting claims as well.
The first issue addressed by the Court of Appeals was whether it had jurisdiction to consider the appeal, since the claims of seven additional plaintiffs remained before the trial court. Although the trial court certified its Judgment as appealable and none of the parties questioned the appellate court’s jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals declared it was first required, sua sponte, to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the appeal.
Specifically, the Court of Appeals was required to determine whether the trial court’s Judgment, dismissing Appellants’ claims, satisfied the requirements of a final judgment under Rule 74.01(b). The Court of Appeals determined the Judgment disposed of a distinct “judicial unit” because it dismissed all of the claims of some of the plaintiffs, which made it properly appealable. Further, the Court of Appeals found nothing in the record supported a conclusion that the trial court abused its discretion in certifying its judgment under Rule 74.01(b). As such, it held it had jurisdiction to hear this appeal.
Next, in considering whether Appellants stated a claim on which relief can be granted, it noted the standard of review requires the Court to determine only whether the pleaded facts are sufficient to state a cognizable cause of action or claim for relief. If the petition set forth any set of facts that, if proven, would entitle the plaintiffs to relief, then the petition states a claim for relief under Missouri law.
Appellants argued three points on appeal: (1) the trial court erred in dismissing the race discrimination and hostile work environment claims because they properly pled those claims; (2) the trial court erred in dismissing their aiding and abiding claims because the court erroneously applied the law; and (3) an underlying discrimination claim is not necessary to state a claim for aiding and abetting discrimination.
Hostile Work Environment
The Court of Appeals stated the familiar standard that, in order to plead a claim for hostile work environment, Appellants must have alleged facts showing: (1) they are members of a protected group under the Missouri Human Rights Act; (2) they were subjected to unwelcome harassment; (3) their membership in the protected group was a motivating factor in the harassment; and (4) a term, condition, or privilege of their employment was affected by the harassment.
Reviewing the Petition, Appellants plainly pled they were members of a protected group, satisfying the first element. Next, the Court of Appeals found their allegations exemplified unwelcome harassment and met the second required element of Appellant’s cause of action. Further, it found Appellants had sufficiently alleged the harassment was motivated by their race, meeting the third element. Here, Appellants alleged their race determined which bathrooms they could use and where they could go in the Plant. Additionally, the alleged racial epithets and racially derogatory symbols that were sufficient to establish the harassment was motivated by their race. In analyzing the final element, the Court noted Appellants were required to allege that a term, condition, or privilege of employment was affected by the harassment. The Court advised this element can be established by showing either a tangible employment action or an abusive working environment. In determining the hostility of the work environment, the Court noted it was required to consider the totality of the circumstances.
In contesting the appeal, Harley Davison and Syncreon argued that Appellants’ claim for hostile work environment failed because they did not allege they subjectively perceived any harassment. They alleged none of Appellants were identified as having personally experienced any of the incidents complained of. The Court of Appeals rejected this position outright, noting Harley Davison and Syncreon were arguing for a more exacting pleading standard than is required by Missouri law.
Appellant’s Amended Petition explicitly alleged that Harley Davidson and Syncreon “subjected [the Appellants] to a continuous pattern of hostile work environment based on race discrimination,” that the environment “was so pervasive or severe as to create a hostile work environment for each [Appellant],” and that the hostile work environment “unreasonably interfered” with each of the Appellant’s work performance, affected their physiological and psychological well-being, and caused them damage.
For these reasons, the Court of Appeals held Appellants sufficiently stated facts that, if true, would prove they were exposed to a hostile working environment because of their race. Importantly, the Court noted Appellants do not need to be the direct target of each and every racially motivated incident alleged to subjectively perceive harassment from the negative working conditions. As such, the Court of Appeals overruled the trial court’s dismissal of Appellant’s hostile work environment claim, finding Appellants properly stated a claim.
The Court of Appeals next set forth the requirements for stating a claim for race discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act. It held Appellants are required to show: (1) that they suffered an adverse employment action; (2) that their race was a motivating factor; and (3) that they were damaged as a result.
For the same reasons explained above, the Court of Appeals determined Appellants had sufficiently pled the first two elements of their race discrimination claim. Regarding the final element, the Court noted Appellants alleged they sustained damage, including, but not limited to, “emotional distress, humiliation, anxiety, dread, inconvenience, mental anguish, embarrassment, and deprivation of their civil rights.” Again, the Court of Appeals determined Appellants’ properly pled claims for race discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, such that their claims were improperly dismissed.
Aiding and Abetting
Finally, having found that Appellants met the threshold pleading requirements to state claims for race discrimination and hostile work environment, the Court of Appeals also reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Appellants’ aiding and abetting claims, as those claims were dismissed solely on the basis that they were not supported by viable discrimination claims, which was no longer true.
This case serves as an important reminder that a Court of Appeals, in appropriate circumstances, may exercise jurisdiction when part of the case remains before the trial court. Here, the dismissal of all claims of some plaintiffs qualified as a distinct “judicial unit,” allowing these claims to be immediately appealable. As such, the trial court was allowed, under Rule 74.01(b), to exercise its discretion in certifying the Judgment as final and appealable.The case also serves as a lesson that employees do not need to be the direct target of the alleged discriminatory or harassing conduct in order to have an actionable claim. When a protected class member witnesses pervasive discrimination against other members of his or her protected class, that may be sufficient to support that employee’s claim of a hostile work environment.