Missouri Court of Appeals holds its nose while upholding dismissal of case filed by gay man called ‘cocksucker’ by his boss

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James Pittman, a gay man, says he was called a “cocksucker” by Joe Jurden, the president of Cook Paper Recycling Corporation, the local company he worked for from 2004 to 2011. He also alleged, in a 2013 lawsuit filed in Jackson County, that Jurden “made other comments of a sexual nature, discriminatory to a male homosexual, including asking him if he had AIDS.” Pittman was eventually fired in December 2011. 

Pittman’s case was dismissed. Cook Paper’s defense noted — and the circuit judge agreed — that, in Missouri, it’s not illegal to fire somebody or discriminate against them in the workplace because they are gay. 

Pittman appealed the case, arguing, essentially, that sexual orientation should qualify for protection under Missouri’s laws because it is tantamount to discrimination based on sex, which is protected. Today, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled on Pittman’s case. They said: Nope. 

Reading the opinion upholding the dismissal, though, there is a strong sense that the panel was less than thrilled to hand down this particular judgment. Judge James E. Welsh writes: 

Unlike many other states, Missouri has not enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals by adding sexual orientation as a protected status in the Missouri Human Rights Act. If the Missouri legislature had desired to include sexual orientation in the Missouri Human Rights Act’s protections, it could have done so. No matter how compelling Pittman’s argument may be and no matter how sympathetic this court or the trial court may be to Pittman’s situation, we are bound by the state of the law as it currently exists. Without the legislative addition of “sexual orientation” to the statutory list of protected statuses, the Missouri Human Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination based upon a person’s sexual orientation. 

Judge Robert M. Clayton: 

I respectfully and reluctantly concur in the opinion of Judge Welsh with respect to the result only.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert writes: 

A person’s sex is always considered when taking a person’s sexual orientation into account. (E.g., homosexual, heterosexual). Thus, under the spirit of the law, sexual discrimination claims based on sexual orientation are actionable claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act. 

The ACLU notes that this case is a clear example of why the Missouri Legislature needs to pass the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA). 

“Contrary to what many believe, lesbian, gay, and bisexual Missourians can still be fired, kicked out of their homes, or denied service at a restaurant because of who they are and who they love,” says Sarah Rossi, ACLU of Missouri director of advocacy and policy. “The ACLU has been calling on the legislature to change this for years, to have the basic decency to catch up to what 27 other states have already done — include LGBT people in the Missouri Human Rights Act. Pass the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act.”

Read the court’s full opinion here

UPDATE: Joe Jurden responds: 

Discrimination is a real problem in our country, and even today there are numerous instances where gay and lesbian people are treated unfairly.

The case of James Pittman vs. Cook Paper Recycling Corp. is not one of these instances.

In recent days, publicity about this case has resulted in hateful allegations hurled at me and Cook Paper Recycling. In some instances, threats of violence have been made against company employees, me and my family.

I am disappointed that those who would seek fairness and due process for gay and lesbian people are so quick to dismiss these common courtesies when judging others.

In an effort to set the record straight, here are the facts:

Mr. Pittman made his sexual orientation known to us when he first interviewed for a position with our company. In his seven years of employment, he at various times was a guest in my home and the homes of other employees. Further, many employees of Cook Paper Recycling-including myself-were guests in his home. He was a member of the team no different than any other employee, and was treated with courtesy and respect.

At no time was Mr. Pittman ever subjected to name-calling or derision by me or any other employee. That sort of behavior is simply not tolerated at our company and is grounds for termination.

When Mr. Pittman’s employment was terminated, he chose to pursue legal action based on his sexual orientation.

Defending a lawsuit is expensive, especially for a small business. It takes up time and money that could otherwise be used to run our business and create jobs and commerce. In order to expedite the matter, we cited the laws of the State of Missouri to make our case. Both the Circuit Court and the Appellate Court ruled in our favor.

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