Civil Rights bill would enable more people to sue Colorado employers for discrimination

State Senator Morgan Carroll speaking at the Capitol. (Kersgaard)

A Senate bill that would give sharper teeth to Colorado anti-discrimination laws passed out of committee on a party line vote Monday.

The Job Protection and Civil Rights Enforcement Act of 2011, sponsored by Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, gives employees of small businesses and individuals who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation new avenues to redress harms committed intentionally against them. The bill met stiff resistance from business advocates who feared lawsuits against Colorado’s already stressed small businesses was a recipe for disaster. Carroll, vehemently disagreed with the assertion.

“We don’t say show up, be sexually assaulted at work and do your work or you are going to lose your job without remedy. That isn’t civilized in my opinion,” Carroll said. “And I say that in strong terms because I mean that in strong terms. Nobody should have to do that.”

Currently in Colorado, employees are protected against workplace discrimination for race, age, gender and sexual orientation among other things. However, they are not allowed to collect punitive damages, compensatory damages or attorney’s fees even if they prove discrimination in a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission or in Colorado courts. Federal law does allow for individuals to sue employers for such damages but does not protect those who either are employed in a business with fewer than 15 people or are discriminated against due to sexual orientation.

SB 72, if passed, would put Colorado amongst 43 other states that no longer allow a business of less than 15 people to be exempt from seeking compensatory, punitive and attorney fees as part of their awards in discrimination cases. The law would make it possible for employees of small and large businesses to collect damages and attorney fees under Colorado law in cases where proven intentional discrimination occurs and allows those discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation and age to seek the same remedies.

It also instructs the courts to consider the size of the business when determining the remedy. Currently only back pay, forward pay, reinstatement or hire, and interest on pay can be sought in courts.

Total remedies from a company with 14 employees or less is capped at $50,000, though the federal law, which the bill is tied to for determining remedy amounts, allows employees of larger organizations, such as the state government, to seek awards of up to $300,000.

Republican committee members voted unanimously against the bill. Their line of questioning taken with those testifying in committee indicated concern that lawsuits against employers could hinder small business growth.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, who voted against the bill, declined to give comment on his vote.

“We did hear some evidence that we are in a tough economy and I think that is true.” Carroll said. “I don’t think that providing civil rights is why we are in a recession. I don’t think that our ability to discriminate without consequence promotes the economy. I don’t think that is part of our job recovery plan and in fact we have heard the opposite.”

According to the bill’s fiscal note, under state law a person who wishes to file a discrimination claim must first do so with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The director decides if the claim has merit, at which point the person can either accept that determination or can file with the appropriate court.

“I think the vision of the civil rights movement to allow every person to be judged by the content of their character is true in 2011. I don’t recall a footnote that really the vision we are going for is unless you work for a company with under 15 people. There is a reason 43 other state closed that loophole.”

If the bill becomes law, the state will likely see an increase in cases of discrimination for sexual orientation, age, and disability according to the fiscal note. That increase would in turn lead to higher costs for the state.

The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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