Lawmakers make it harder for fired workers to sue

Posted March 24, 2016 6:27 p.m. EDT
Updated March 24, 2016 6:54 p.m. EDT

— Although most of the attention over legislation the General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed within 12 hours Wednesday has been focused on who uses what bathroom and the lack of LGBT protections against discrimination, the new law also makes it harder for a worker to sue an employer for discriminatory firing.

Since 1977, North Carolina law has made it illegal for an employer to fire someone for reasons of race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or disability. Anyone who believed they were fired for such a reason could sue his or her employer for discriminatory firing in state court.

A section of House Bill 2, dubbed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, rewrote state employment law, however, making it impossible to sue in state court for discriminatory firing.

"We thought this was really a bill about bathrooms and state and municipal government, but it turned out that it was much bigger," said Raleigh lawyer Chris Nichols, president of North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

"What that's done is it's put everyone – employers and employees – into federal court, which is not really the place you want to be," Nichols said.

Federal court is slower, more complex and more expensive, which could discourage some lawsuits, he said. It also offers a much shorter window for fired employees to file suit.

"Generally speaking, there's a reason we use the expression 'make it a federal case,'" Nichols said. "It means it's harder, more difficult and longer. The people of North Carolina need a fast method to resolve disputes."

Mississippi is the only other state with no employment discrimination protections.

Republican lawmakers who wrote House Bill 2 said they were trying to avoid creating new ways for workers to sue employers for discrimination.

Democrats noticed the potential problem during House and Senate debates on the bill, but proposed amendments to correct it were voted down.

Sponsor Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said no fix was needed.

"We're not changing anything in that regard in this bill," Newton said.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, who sponsored the bill in the House, said he wasn't sure if it affected state law but said it wouldn't matter anyway.

"The remedies that are available under federal law are far more robust under federal law, as things stand anyway. So, there's no harm," Bishop said.

"If there’s confusion over a bill, it needs to be fixed," Nichols said, adidng that lawmakers could correct it with one sentence when they come back to session April 25.

"What we're worried about for the people of North Carolina is that there was just an honest mistake made," he said. "There was a big rush yesterday, and unfortunately, the bill has taken away the rights of employees – and in some regards employers – in our state."