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House bill to lift limits on pay suits

It would override a high court ruling on a law requiring workers to file discrimination claims within 180 days.

July 31, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers were expected to vote today to override a Supreme Court decision that makes it more difficult for workers to sue their employers for past discrimination about pay.

The Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, in May that federal law imposed a tight deadline on employees, requiring them to file a complaint within 180 days after the discriminatory act has taken place.

To labor advocates, the decision underscored the reputation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s court as a strong ally of corporate America, and they pressed the Democratic-controlled Congress to void it. With votes expected to split along party lines, lawmakers predicted the bill will pass, pushed through by the Democratic majority.

On Monday, lawmakers debated the bill late into the night then postponed a vote until today. Democrats described their support for the bill as a vote for the little guy -- and the Alabama woman who triggered the case.

"This legislation can be summed up in one word: fairness," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "And what better sums up the idea of equal pay for equal work?"

The Democratic leadership blasted President Bush for his threat Friday to veto the bill, with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) describing the president's pledge as "just further evidence that this president does not stand on the side of American workers."

Republicans said the bill would create a field day for trial lawyers. The bill, said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), is "only the most recent salvo in the Democratic majority's assault on entrepreneurship."

Dreier cited data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that showed 60% of discrimination claims were baseless, and he predicted the bill would expand lawsuits. "The waste and abuse will increase exponentially," said Dreier, predicting the creation of a "Wild West of jurisprudence."

Business groups announced that they opposed the bill and would take note of how lawmakers voted. The bill "would allow employees to wait to file a discrimination claim until the supervisor who made the decision is no longer available to testify and defend their decision," said Dan Danner, the National Federation of Independent Businesses' executive vice president of public policy.

Landmark ruling

Critics of the Supreme Court ruling argued that it protected discriminatory-pay decisions from being challenged. If an employee failed to dispute a decision within 180 days, they argued, then the business could continue to pay that employee in a discriminatory fashion for the rest of his or her career.

"This decision was important because it took well-settled civil rights law and turned it on its head, changing to the advantage of employers and to the disadvantage of ordinary American workers," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Henderson argued that it was almost impossible for workers to file a discrimination claim within 180 days. "In many cases, employees don't know what their co-workers earn ... and without that knowledge the Supreme Court has largely declared plaintiffs as having no actionable claim," he said.

Before the court's ruling, the widely accepted rule in employment law was that any paycheck that was discriminatory could be considered a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin or religion. That meant that any paycheck could be grounds for a challenge.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), would restore the ability of employees to file claims alleging discriminatory paychecks.

Goodyear lawsuit

The case was sparked by Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala., who sued the company six months before she retired in 1998 after 19 years of service.

Ledbetter had suspected for years that her male co-workers were being paid more, but she did not have proof until shortly before her retirement, when someone anonymously left documents in her work mailbox showing what she and three male managers earned. In 1997, Ledbetter was earning $3,700 a month, compared with her male colleagues who were earning $4,300 to $5,200.

At trial, jurors heard that Ledbetter's supervisor admitted that her pay had fallen below the minimum threshold for her position; that a manager had told her the "plant did not need women" because they "caused problems"; and that one of the other female managers earned less than the men she supervised.

The jury awarded Ledbetter $223,776 in back pay, $4,662 in compensatory damages and more than $3 million in punitive damages.

After Goodyear appealed, "the Supreme Court took it all away, even the back pay," Ledbetter said at a House hearing in June. The court didn't dispute the substance of Ledbetter's charges, just her timing.

Ledbetter rapped the court's argument that workers should act swiftly to bring a challenge.

"The majority's rule just doesn't make sense in the real world. You can't expect people to go around asking their co-workers how much money they're making," Ledbetter said. "At a lot of places, that could get you fired."

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