Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Barriers to Justice: Examining Equal Pay for Equal Work (Part I)

September 23rd, 2008 | Cyrus Mehri

TESTIMONY OF CYRUS MEHRI BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY
UNITED STATES SENATE
SEPTEMBER 23, 2008

[View Hearing Webcast]

Chairman Leahy, members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to speak at today’s hearing. It is an honor to appear before you today, especially along with a genuine American heroine, Lilly Ledbetter.

My name is Cyrus Mehri. I am a partner at Mehri & Skalet. I have served as co-lead counsel in some of the largest and most sweeping race and gender employment discrimination cases in U.S. history: Roberts v. Texaco Inc. (S.D.N.Y 1997); Ingram v. The Coca-Cola Company (N.D. Ga. 2001); Robinson v. Ford Motor Company (S.D. Ohio 2005); Augst-Johnson v. Morgan Stanley (D.D.C. 2007); and Amochaev v. Smith Barney (N.D. Cal. 2008).

I have spearheaded a pro bono effort that has fundamentally changed the hiring practices of the National Football League for coaches as well as front office and scouting personnel. In addition, in 2004, my firm along with the National Council of Women’s Organizations launched the Women on Wall Street Project that focuses on gender inequities in the financial services industry.

Blessed with courageous and steadfast clients, I am most proud of the groundbreaking programmatic relief in our settlements. Senior management at companies such as Ford and Morgan Stanley, CEOs such as Neville Isdell of Coca Cola, and NFL owners such as Dan Rooney, have all praised the way we have sincerely and effectively brought about change at their organizations.

I am asked today to provide a practitioner’s perspective on employment discrimination claims in our federal courts, including pay discrimination claims. Let me say at the outset, that as a practitioner, I find Lilly Ledbetter’s story to be a compelling example of what is wrong with the system. In her case, the federal courts reached a decision that is entirely out of touch with the American workplace – requiring that she file an EEOC charge based on what she did not know, nor could have reasonably known, at that time regarding pay inequity. Her hard-fought trial victory vanished, and the factual findings of the jurors who heard her evidence firsthand counted for nothing.

Unfortunately, Ms. Ledbetter’s experience in the federal courts is far from isolated. It typifies the uphill battle that American workers face. A new study from Cornell University Law School confirms that thousands of American workers encounter a double standard in the U.S. Appellate Courts. The Cornell data shows that Ms. Ledbetter’s story is just the tip of the iceberg of a far larger systemic problem. After sharing key points from the Cornell study, I will provide real life examples of other “Lilly Ledbetters” who have had their civil rights remedies taken away by out-of-touch federal appellate courts. It is clear to me that to restore a level playing field, this Committee should infuse the federal bench with a dose of reality and appoint federal judges from diverse backgrounds, including those who have substantial experience representing average American workers.

The seminal new study is “Employment Discrimination Plaintiffs in Federal Court: From Bad to Worse?” by Dean Stewart J. Schwab and Kevin M. Clermont, both professors at Cornell Law School. 3 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. (forthcoming 2009). Cornell Law School is at the epicenter of scholarship on empirical legal studies and is the home of the peer-reviewed Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Earlier this month, Cornell Law hosted the Conference on Empirical and Legal Studies, with 350 legal scholars and 120 new papers.

Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont both have sterling credentials. Dean Schwab served as a judicial law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and is a law and economics scholar. In addition to teaching and serving as dean, he is a reporter for the Restatement on Employment Law. Professor Clermont is one of the nation’s leading scholars on civil procedure. Their article is to be published in the Harvard Law & Policy Review this winter. A pre-print was released by the American Constitution Society last week as part of a panel discussion moderated by former Sixth Circuit Judge Nathaniel R. Jones. During the panel discussion, Judge Jones declared that the study is a “profoundly important and significant work” that raises issues about the federal courts that “cry out for scrutiny and close examination.” (See the panel slideshow; listen to the panel discussion; questions from the audience. Windows Media Player required)

It is important to note that I am a Cornell Law School alumnus, serve on the law school’s advisory counsel, and have followed the law school’s empirical legal scholarship for several years, particularly as it relates to employment discrimination cases. I was interviewed for the Clermont/Schwab study (see footnote 47) to provide a practitioner’s insight.

THREE KEY FINDINGS OF THE CLERMONT/SCHWAB STUDY

Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont used data maintained by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and assembled by the Federal Judicial Center, to analyze district court and appellate court data for cases identified by civil cover sheet category 442 “Civil Rights: Jobs”. Two-thirds of these cases are Title VII cases. The remainder are other cases involving discrimination in the workplace. They examined the most up-to-date and complete data available, covering the period from 1979 through 2007.

They made three key findings:

1. Double Standard on Appeal

Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont found that when employers win at trial, they are reversed by the U.S. Courts of Appeals 8.72% of the time. In striking contrast, when employees win at trial, they are reversed 41.10% of the time. Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont summarized:

In this surprising plaintiff/defendant difference in the federal courts of appeals, we have unearthed an anti-plaintiff effect that is troublesome.

They found this anti-plaintiff effect on appeal particularly disturbing because employment discrimination cases are fact-intensive and often turn on the credibility of witnesses:

The vulnerability on appeal of jobs plaintiffs’ relatively few trial victories is more startling in light of the nature of these cases and the applicable standard of review. The bulk of employment discrimination cases turn on intent, and not on disparate impact. The subtle question of the defendant’s intent is likely to be the key issue in a nonfrivolous employment discrimination case that reaches trial, putting the credibility of the witness at play. When the plaintiff has convinced the factfinder of the defendants’ wrongful intent, that finding should be largely immune from appellate reversal, just as defendant’s trial victories are. Reversal of plaintiffs’ trial victories in employment discrimination cases should be unusually uncommon. Yet we find the opposite.

They concluded that:

the anti-plaintiff effect on appeal raises the specter that appellate courts have a double standard for employment discrimination cases, harshly scrutinizing employees’ victories below while gazing benignly at employers’ victories.

The 8.72% reversal rate for employers compared to the 41.10% reversal rate for employees is shocking. From my perspective, a two to one disparity would be troubling, but could have possible explanatory variables such as the resource advantage that typically favors employers. However, an appeal reversal disparity that is five to one is indefensible. It creates a crisis of confidence in the federal courts. Further, it has debilitating consequences for civil rights litigants. This leads to the second important finding.

2. Precipitous Drop in Employment Cases Since 1998

Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont found an absolute drop in employment discrimination cases of 37% from fiscal 1999-2007. Cases are down dramatically, and the data indicate the decline in private enforcement is more pronounced in recent years. Specifically, in absolute terms, the number of such cases fell from 23,721 in 1999 to 18,859 in 2005. They declined even more sharply in the last two years of the data to 15,007 in 2007. Some might say discrimination has gone down; however, statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) show that EEOC charges have remained steady if not increased from 1997 (80,680 charges) to 2007 (82,792 charges). Thus far in 2008, the EEOC has experienced a 15% rise in charges compared with last year. The rise in EEOC charges suggests that discrimination in the workplace has not decreased. In short, employment discrimination persists, but federal court cases enforcing anti-discrimination laws are down dramatically.

The five to one appeal reversal disparity could have a chilling effect on private Title VII enforcement of Title VII. Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont state:

Discouragement could explain the recent downturn in the number of cases…there could be a growing awareness, especially with the prolonged lack of success on appeal, that employment discrimination plaintiffs have too tough a row to hoe.” It appears that the U.S. Courts of Appeals have become increasingly hostile to workers, and workers are increasingly unable to find counsel ready to take these contingency cases. Wrongdoers in effect go scot-free, while workers expecting a level playing field face heart-breaking defeats.

American workers such as Lilly Ledbetter, having faced an unlevel playing field in the workplace, find an equally unlevel playing field in the courts. No wonder the number of discrimination cases filed in the federal courts is down by an astonishing 37%. The U.S. Courts of Appeals with the most dramatic drops in employment discrimination cases are:

  • 11th Circuit: (FL, GA, AL)
  • 5th Circuit: (LA, MS, TX)
  • 4th Circuit: (MD, VA, NC, SC, WV)
  • 8th Circuit (MO, MN, IA, AR, ND, SD, NE)
  • 6th Circuit: (MI, OH, TN, KY)

3. Troubling Patterns in the Trial Court

Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont’s study also finds that employment discrimination plaintiffs fare significantly worse in judge, or bench, trials than other plaintiffs. The district court judicial disparity is particularly evident when outcomes in judge trials are compared with jury trials. Juries rule in favor of plaintiffs in job cases 37.63% of the time versus 44.41% in non-job cases. District court judges, however, rule in favor of jobs plaintiffs only 19.62%, while ruling in favor of non-jobs plaintiffs 45.53%, a striking disparity.

The three key findings of Dean Schwab and Professor Clermont suggest that American workers are denied a level playing field in the federal courts. Let me next provide a window into the plight of American workers confronting discrimination in the workplace.

[Read Part II]

About the Author: Cyrus Mehri is a founding partner of the law firm Mehri & Skalet, PLLC. Mr. Mehri served as Class Counsel in the two largest race discrimination class actions in history: Roberts v. Texaco Inc. which settled in 1997 for $176 million and Ingram v. The Coca-Cola Company, which settled in 2001 for $192.5 million.  Both settlements include historic programmatic relief, featuring independent Task Forces with sweeping powers to reform key human resources practices such as pay, promotions and evaluations. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named Mr. Mehri a finalist for “Trial Lawyer of the Year” in 1997 and 2001 for his work on the Texaco and Coca-Cola matters respectively.

In 2002 Mr. Mehri and Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. released the report, Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities.  The report became the catalyst for the NFL’s creation of a Workplace Diversity Committee and the adoption of a comprehensive diversity program.  The NFL now has a record number of African American head coaches. Mr. Mehri graduated from Cornell Law School in 1988, and clerked for the Honorable John T. Nixon, U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee. Mr. Mehri is a frequent guest on radio and TV and is guest columnist for Diversity, Inc.

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