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Democrats seek to reverse decision on workplace bias

The first bill that lands on Barack Obama’s desk after he becomes president could provide him with an opportunity to make an immediate mark on civil rights.

Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation that would undo a controversial 2007 decision by the Supreme Court that tossed out a workplace discrimination suit brought by a female supervisor at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. The woman, who alleged she was paid less than comparable male employees for years, won at trial, but the justices ruled she had sued too late.

The House is expected to vote on the bill today, and the Senate will probably take up the measure next week.

The plaintiff in the case, Lilly Ledbetter, worked at a Goodyear plant in Alabama for nearly 20 years and learned of the pay discrimination late in her career.

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In a 5-4 vote, the court held that she should have filed suit within six months of the company making a pay decision based on her gender -- saying, in essence, that she should have sued before she discovered she was being discriminated against.

The case inflamed workplace advocates and others, who said the outcome would exacerbate what they saw as a substantial pay gap between men and women. Her cause was adopted by Democratic candidates; Ledbetter spoke at the party’s national convention and was cited by Obama on national television.

“This ruling just doesn’t make sense in the real world,” Ledbetter said this week.

If the legislation becomes law, it will probably affect more than the time limit for filing pay claims. Since the high court ruled in the Ledbetter case, federal judges have employed the stricter standard in a variety of lawsuits, including those alleging discrimination in housing and college athletics.

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“We now see pay claims being thrown out of court or not being filed at all,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center.

The House passed a similar bill last session, but President Bush threatened a veto. The measure never made it out of the Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Thursday that she wanted the new Congress to take up the matter as quickly as possible. “It is of the highest priority to us,” she said.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), would force judges to adopt Ledbetter’s position that each paycheck constituted a separate act of discrimination that extended the statutory time limit for filing suit. Supporters think such a rule is necessary because victims of pay disparity often have difficulty finding out the salaries of other workers.

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The House bill is packaged with another measure that would increase the damages allowed for pay discrimination. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are lined up against that bill.

The chamber also opposes the Ledbetter legislation. “Statutes of limitations are there for a reason,” said Randel Johnson of the chamber. Lawsuits, he said, should be filed while “the facts are somewhat timely.”

Johnson said the bills presumed the only reason a woman could be paid less was discrimination when other factors may come into play, such as seniority and education.

Another group views the bills as the beginning of Democratic efforts to roll back so-called tort reform measures pushed by Republicans.

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“Provisions in the bill would also promote a new wave of inherently difficult-to-defend-against class-action lawsuits, which could actually help drive more American jobs overseas,” said Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Assn. “None of this will positively contribute to the new president’s goal of creating or preserving millions of American jobs in the coming years.”

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joliphant@tribune.com


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