Bar News - October 6, 2006
SCOTUS Business Cases to Watch
A week before the Supreme Court began its 2006 session on Oct. 2, the docket contained just 29 cases for review. The outcomes of some of those cases will affect business interests, including a major tort reform case and a significant employment law dispute.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Legal Foundation, an advocacy group, has compiled the following preview of the major tort reform and employment law cases that the Supreme Court will hear this term. The foundation will be filing an amicus brief in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. employment law case.
The 2006 docket includes several other important cases that involve broad business interests, such as anti-trust, environmental, and patent issues.
Tort reform advocates will be watching Phillip Morris USA v. Williams (Docket No. 05-1256). In this case, which arises out of a widow’s tort suit against the cigarette manufacturer that resulted in $79.5 million punitive damages, the court will be asked to address the constitutional limits on punitive damage awards. This will be the court’s first significant ruling on punitive damages since State Farm v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003).
One issue the court has agreed to review is of significant interest to the business community, namely whether juries may impose damages suffered by people who are not parties to the case. The question of whether a jury may punish a defendant for harms to non-parties arises in a number of other types of cases, including product-liability and environmental litigation.
In the case Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Docket No. 05-1074, the Court is expected to decide how far back a plaintiff can reach when seeking damages in a disparate pay claim. Ledbetter, a supervisor in Goodyear’s tire assembly center for 19 years, has asked the court to look back to 1979. At trial, Ledbetter persuaded the court to allow into evidence all of her pay reviews since her hire in 1979. The Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of Goodyear, finding that the employee can only go back as far as the most recent salary review, observing that there must be “some limit on how far back the plaintiff can reach.” It upheld the company’s actions and reversed a $360,000 award.
The NFIB has taken a stance in agreement with the appellate court that there must be limitations on how far back a plaintiff can reach to prove a disparate pay claim. If a plaintiff receives just one paycheck within the limitations period that was based on the pay level he or she objects to, the plaintiff could effectively call into question every decision contributing to his or her being paid at that level. This leaves much uncertainty for employers and is directly contrary to the central purposes of the time-filing requirement of discrimination claims.
Decisions in both of these cases are expected by June 2007.