Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Class Action Fairness Bill Defeated in Senate: Victory for Workers

October 22nd, 2003 | Paula Brantner

Some good news today from the U.S. Senate: today, in a 59-39 vote, the Senate lacked the 60 votes necessary to stop a Democratic-led filibuster which prevents the Class Action Fairness Act (S 1751) (pdf version) from moving forward. The vote is a victory for workers everywhere, especially those who work for larger employers, who may need to vindicate their rights by bringing a class action lawsuit against their employer. The vote also represents a rare defeat for big business and the Administration’s agenda in this session of Congress.

As previously reported here in April and June, the Class Action Fairness Act was anything but fair to class action plaintiffs. The proponents of this bill had an interest in moving class actions to federal court, as federal court litigation can be more complex and costly. There are a number of rules applicable in federal courts that most states have not yet adopted that make litigation in federal court more time-consuming and expensive, and juries tend to be more conservative in federal court. The bill also contained a number of other provisions all designed to make it hard for employment and civil rights plaintiffs, as well as other groups of individuals who are taking on big business, to file a group lawsuit.

This bill was also an important component of the Administration’s legislative agenda, and with Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, business groups sensed an opportunity to move the bill forward. (See New York Times article.) They were only one vote away from success, as several Democrats defected to join the Republicans attempting to pass the bill. There were ultimately eight Democratic senators (and Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, an independent who often votes Democratic) in favor of the bill (Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Blanche L. Lincoln of Arkansas, Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska). The lone Republican to join the Democratic opposition was Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who practiced law for 14 years before joining Congress.

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, known as a centrist Democrat, was heavily pressured to join the senators voting in favor of moving the bill forward, and noted, “I could have easily been the 60th vote. They knew my vote was important, I knew my vote was important.” Landrieu, her fellow home state senator John Breaux, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle had all urged the authors of the bill to consider making some compromises designed to attract further Democratic support; however, the bill moved forward unchanged, necessitating the Democratic effort to kill the bill. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said of the bill, “Defendant corporations don’t want to be held liable for their misconduct and if held responsible they want to pay less money and that’s what it comes down to. That’s what this is all about. They want to protect themselves and limit their liability.” (See USA Today article.)

We couldn’t agree more.

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