Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Second Case

Yesterday I posted on the first decision from the US Supreme Court of the five cases on age discrimination before them this session. Today's NY Times announces the decision in the second case, and this one is a clearer victory for the plaintiffs.

This is the background (which was buried deep in the article):

Under the age discrimination law, employees must first file a discrimination charge with the E.E.O.C., and then wait 60 days before filing a lawsuit, in order to give the commission time to try to resolve the matter with the employer.

In this instance, the employees filed the wrong document with the commission, an “intake questionnaire” rather than a formal “charge” document. They accompanied that document with an affidavit that described the problem and asked the commission to “please force Federal Express to end their age discrimination plan.”
[Emphasis added]

I suspect the affadavit attached to the form which detailed the claim of age discrimination was the key factor in the 7-2 decision (Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented).

The failure to file the proper form to complain about job-related age discrimination does not deprive an employee of the ability to go into court later with a discrimination lawsuit, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In its relaxed approach to formalities, the 7-to-2 decision marked a decided change in tone for the Roberts court compared with one of the signature decisions of the previous term. In the earlier case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, the court ruled by a vote of 5 to 4 that employees complaining about discrimination in pay forfeited their right to sue if they did not file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of a manager’s discriminatory pay decision.

On Wednesday, by contrast, the new majority stressed the need for a “permissive standard” that would not shut the door on workers who were not represented by lawyers and who could be expected to make a layman’s mistakes.

“The system must be accessible to individuals who have no detailed knowledge of the relevant statutory mechanisms and agency processes,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, adding that it was “consistent with the purposes” of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to allow the initial complaint to be submitted on a form that was “easy to complete,” or even as “an informal document, easy to draft.”

The decision means that the case can now proceed to trial. The plaintiffs will still have to prove their age discrimination claim, but at least they'll have the opportunity to do so.

What I find interesting is that both Bush appointees (Roberts and Alito) voted with the majority and signed Justice Kennedy's decision, even though they voted for a harsher interpretration of discrimination law requirements in the Ledbetter case of the last session. I think the fact that the Bush administration didn't insert itself in this case (as it had in Ledbetter) might be the key in this case.

Whatever the reason, however, I think the decision is a good one, albeit late. The complaint was originally filed in 2002, and a lot of witnesses can disappear in six years. Still, at least these plaintiffs and others who might have filed the wrong form will now have a chance at justice.

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Blogger nihil obstet said...

The Ledbetter case involved sex discrimination, from which Roberts and Alito and their cronies gain personal status. This case is about age discrimination; while federal judges have lifetime tenure, the personal psychological investment in a patriarchy that honors aging males may well have an effect.

9:22 AM  

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