U.S. Senate passes pay equity bill, paving way for flood of lawsuits

Chris Rizo Jan. 23, 2009, 7:36am

Barbara Mikulski (D)

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-The first piece of legislation that U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law could be a bill that critics say would be a gift to the nation's trial lawyers.

The proposal -- dubbed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- would effectively overturn a 2007 U.S. 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.

"Wage discrimination still exists because there are loopholes in our federal laws," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. "We want to close the loopholes."

The measure, which Republicans blocked last year, on Thursday handily passed the Senate 61-36. Each voting Democrat supported the bill.

The legislation was also supported by all four of the female Republican senators: Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

The House passed its version of the bill 247-171 earlier this month.

Before the legislation can go to Obama's desk, the Senate and House proposals will have to be reconciled and put into a final bill.

Critics, including tort reformers, say a bevy of cases of alleged wage discrimination could result because the law would essentially eliminate the statute of limitations on pay discrimination.

In an earlier interview, Law and More editor Jane Genova told Legal Newsline if the bill passes Congress then Democrats "handed the plaintiff bar gold that they don't even have to prospect for or dig up."

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

The bill was named for Lilly Ledbetter, who 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.

The Supreme Court affirmed a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit decision, which held that Ledbetter couldn't sue under the 1964 Civil Rights Act because the alleged discrimination occurred more than 180 days before she filed her claim.

Democrats, sympathizing with Ledbetter's plight, introduced the legislation to overturn the high court's 5-4 ruling.

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

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