Wage legislation called a potential 'bonanza' for trial lawyers

Chris Rizo Jan. 12, 2009, 3:10am

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-Legislation called a potential "trial lawyer bonanza" by the Wall Street Journal is winding its way through Congress.

The proposal would overturn a 2007 Supreme Court decision that employees cannot challenge ongoing pay discrimination if the employer's original discriminatory pay decision occurred outside of the statute of limitations.

Critics, including tort reformers, say if lawmakers override the high court's decision in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, a bevy of cases of alleged wage discrimination would result.

The House passed the measure last week 247-171. The bill, outlined in H.R. 11, could reach the Senate as early as this week.

"The 111th Congress, if the bill passes the Senate, handed the plaintiff bar gold that they don't even have to prospect for or dig up," Law and More editor Jane Genova told Legal Newsline Saturday.

"Every present or future employee with a grievance, no matter how far back it dates, can sue," she added.

In a statement last week, House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said the House-approved plan is part of Democrats' effort to reward trial lawyers, among other supporters.

"It's the first step to begin rewarding the special-interest allies who helped give the Democratic Party control of Washington," Boehner said. "It's the same game plan Democratic leaders will use later in this Congress when they attempt to pass anti-worker legislation supported by their Big Labor allies to strip Americans of their right to secret ballot elections in the workplace."

Lilly Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. because she said the company was paying here less than male employees who held similar jobs during her 20 years with the company. She was one of only a handful of female supervisors at the plant in Gadsden, Ala.

A jury sided with Ledbetter, awarding her back-pay and approximately $3.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but the Supreme Court affirmed a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit decision that Ledbetter waited too long to sue.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling. Democrats, sympathizing with Ledbetter's plight, introduced legislation, dubbed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to overturn the high court's 5-4 ruling.

The Ledbetter proposal was first introduced in the last session of Congress, but died amid opposition from Republicans and a threat by President George W. Bush to veto the bill should it reach his desk. He called the legislation a job killer.

On Friday, a Wall Street Journal editorial blasted the Ledbetter legislation.

"For the tort bar, this is pure gold. It would create a new legal business in digging up ancient workplace grievances," the Journal said. "This would also be made easier by the bill's new definition of discrimination. Companies could be sued not merely for outright discrimination but for unintentional acts that result in pay disparities."

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

More News