“Justice for All” in the White House - Searcy Denney

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Patrick Quinlan

Bringing Justice to the White House

» Written by // May 7, 2008 //


One of the issues that all Americans, and particularly lawyers, should consider in making their presidential pick is which candidate will best serve the interest of “justice for all.”   Recently, while the talking heads continued to focus on the meaning of the word “bitter,” or the sound bites from a retired minister, a little-covered story gave us some real insight into how the three remaining Presidential candidates view our civil justice system.

Lilly Ledbetter worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for nearly twenty years.  The entire time, she was paid substantially less than her male co-workers.  Ms. Ledbetter did not know that she had been discriminated against until she was tipped of by an anonymous note.  She then brought a lawsuit against Goodyear under the Equal Pay Act.  The jury awarded her $3 million in damages.  But the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by the newest Justice, Samuel Alito, held that her pay discrimination claim was barred by the statute of limitations.  The law, in its present form, requires a plaintiff to bring a charge of discrimination within 180 days of the discriminatory behavior.  The court held that the employer must act with discriminatory intent within the 180-day window.  Merely issuing a paycheck, though it may perpetuate a discriminatory pay decision made in the past, does not constitute the necessary “new” act of intentional discrimination.  Thus, while not questioning that Goodyear had, in fact, intentionally discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter for nearly twenty years, the United States Supreme Court directed that judgment be entered for Goodyear.

Many people found the result in Ms. Ledbetter’s case — a victory for the long-term discriminator — to be the height of injustice.  So several lawmakers attempted to legislatively correct the Supreme Court decision.  The Fair Pay Restoration Act, which is also known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, would have reinstated the law as it had been interpreted by most appellate courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: every single discriminatory paycheck represents a new act of discrimination, so that the 180-day period begins anew with every check.  The bill already passed in the House of Representatives (H.R. 2381).  On April 23, the Senate version of the bill (S. 1843) came up for a vote.  Senators Obama and Clinton returned from the campaign trail to cast their votes in favor of the bill.  Senator John McCain did not show up for the vote, but expressed his opposition to the Fair Pay Restoration Act:

I am all in favor of pay equity for women, but this kind of legislation, as is typical of what’s being proposed by my friends on the other side of the aisle, opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems.  This is government playing a much, much greater role in the business of a private enterprise system.

In short, Sen. McCain opposes the use of lawsuits to remedy civil injustice in the private sector.  So he is not at all upset that Goodyear won its case.

The Senate bill died on a procedural vote, falling four votes shy of the 60 necessary to require an “up or down vote” on the merits.  Sponsors and supporters vowed to continue the fight.  Of course, if the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ever passes both the House and Senate, its next stop will be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The question then becomes whether the President who is asked to sign the bill into law will be in favor of justice for victimized Americans or in favor of more protection for Big Corporations.

Link for the first mention of Lilly Ledbetter:
http://docket.medill.northwestern.edu/archives/003741.php

Link for “his opposition to the Fair Pay Restoration Act”:
http://www.wtop.com/?nid=213&sid=1392352


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