The temptations of litigation
President Barack Obama spoke of the first bill he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, as "a clear message that making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody," according to The New York Times.
The act was designed as an amendment to legislation like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, among others. Most significantly, however, the law overrode the 2007 Supreme Court ruling on the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. case, which set a statute of limitations of 180 days for an individual given pay unequal to their counterparts to file a claim against their employer.
As a woman, I certainly am an advocate of equal rights for women. I find it unfortunate that the best that can be done to offset unequal pay is to ensure that women have the right and the luxury of time to take legal action to contest wage discrimination.
Perhaps we are setting a dangerous precedent by improving legislation to file lawsuits against prejudicial actions, rather than tackling legislation to prevent workplace inequity in the first place. Without a doubt, victims of wage discrimination are entitled to seek compensation from their unjust employers, but can we make the leap to say the same entitlement holds true in other situations? Despite the positive intentions of the Ledbetter law, it may become the unexpected ally of eager, suit-happy individuals like Lucie J. Kim.
Kim filed a claim at Los Angeles County Superior Court against teen superstar Miley Cyrus on Feb. 11 over a picture that surfaced of Cyrus and her friends supposedly mocking Asians by slanting their eyes. Kim is asking for a minimum of $4,000 to be awarded to every person of Asian/Pacific Islander descent in the Los Angeles area — an amount that would amass to approximately $4 billion, according to MSNBC. Kim has stated that they are "victims of [Cyrus's] discriminatory acts."
Celebrities have always been susceptible to bizarre and outrageous claims, but seemingly Kim has taken this a step too far. It is within reason that Cyrus's actions would have offended the Asian population. Yet, for many, her young age acts as justification, and that factor alone can allow them to forgive and forget this mistake. Kim has made it clear that she believes Cyrus should have known better, and that she "had actual knowledge that her conduct was in fact a form of racism, prejudice and mockery of the physical attributes of Asian Pacific Islanders."
The "Hannah Montana" star, at 16 years old, has arguably not had enough experience in the spotlight to understand there might be significant repercussions from what she considered simply fooling around with her friends. Whether she was simply making "goofy faces," as she has argued, or actually mocking Asians, as Kim claims, it may prove to have been a very costly move for the young actress and musician. But will the Ledbetter Act also mean costly repercussions for those on Kim's side of the table?
Though it was clearly intended to address and simplify complications with specific wage suits, the act may have highlighted lawsuits as the method of choice for combating unfairness and set the stage for a future filled with discrimination claims. While we were erasing some unreasonable standards, like the 180-day restriction, were we unknowingly establishing others — such as the standard to sue?
With the current economic setting and the high level of unemployment, it would not be surprising to find people taking advantage of the looser restrictions on discrimination suits left and right. Any lawsuit — however legitimate and potentially rewarding the claim may be — still involves a lengthy, strenuous process with a multitude of courtroom and lawyers' fees. Despite the newly established model to assist discriminatory claims through the legislative process, perhaps the drawbacks may prove enough to outweigh the rewards for unworthy claimants.
I do not intend to suggest Obama's first attempt has failed to ensure the economy will not only be working soon, but will also be working for everyone. It is surely unlikely that Kim took any cues from the Ledbetter Act when she made her claim against Cyrus. Lilly Ledbetter looked to legal recourse to obtain what she deserved, while Kim took to the court as means of opportunity to gain Cyrus's hard-earned money. Kim's decision to exploit Cyrus's situation by taking legal action has introduced the question of what will come next. Now that opportunity has arrived for those having experienced pay discrimination to try their tales of prejudice in the courts without regard for the age or strength of their case, who knows how many questionable cases will be introduced? For every deserving defendant, we are also likely to see those hoping to make a quick buck with a bogus claim. Let's just hope that even at this desperate time, the temptations of litigation are enough for some individuals to resist in the way that the corporations who lined up to receive a piece of the government bailout did not.
Larissa Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. Her column "Definition of Insanity" runs on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes feedback at [email protected]
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