Lilly Ledbetter's name has become synonymous with the struggle for equal pay in the United States. The Alabama resident's name is forever attached to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Barack Obama signed in the wake of a high-profile lawsuit that ultimately was decided against Ledbetter.
We recently learned that Ledbetter remains involved in the effort to level playing fields in the American workplace. We also learned, based on a review of public documents, that Ledbetter apparently shares something with us here at Legal Schnauzer: She was shafted by her own attorneys.
Ledbetter traveled to Washington, D.C., back in November to help push for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which had passed the U.S. House and was being debated in the Senate. The measure would ensure that women do not face retaliation for seeking information about what their male co-workers earn.
Ledbetter's pay, compared to her male co-workers at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Gadsden, was a central issue in the lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and turned Ledbetter into a national figure. The Paycheck Fairness Act is considered an important followup to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. But the initial effort to pass the measure did not have a happy ending in the Senate. Reports The Birmingham News:
The bill, backed by women's organizations and President Obama, failed by two votes, with all 58 Democrats voting in favor while all 41 Republicans opposed it. Three Republican women senators who previously voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act.
"It is upsetting to me that something that would benefit everyone got caught up in politics," Ledbetter said in a telephone interview Thursday while driving back to her Jacksonville home.
Ledbetter came to national attention after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a nearly $4-million judgment in her favor against Goodyear Tire and Rubber. In a 5-4 decision in 2007, the high court ruled that Ledbetter was not entitled to back pay because she had filed her claim more than 180 days after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck.
The ruling prompted Congress in 2009 to pass the law bearing Ledbetter's name, making it easier for workers to pursue pay-discrimination claims. Ledbetter has not rested on the laurels of one legislative victory:
Over the past two years, Ledbetter says she has made dozens of speeches across the country and met hundreds of people who say her willingness to stand up for her rights inspired them to do the same. Last month, Ledbetter spoke at the Women's Leadership Institute at Auburn University as part of its Extraordinary Women Lecture Series.
Institute Director Barbara Baker said Ledbetter is an inspiration to women across the country. "Lilly is such a brave woman," Baker said. "Most people figure why fight the system because you can't win. She showed us how you can make a difference."
Baker said Ledbetter is to be commended for using her notoriety to continue the fight for gender fairness in the workplace. "She's become the public face of equal pay," Baker said.
We certainly applaud Ledbetter's efforts. After all, we know from firsthand experience what it's like to be cheated in the workplace based on gender, age, and other unlawful factors. Reports The Birmingham News:
Women currently receive 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the National Women's Law Center. The disparity is even larger for women of color, who make only 62 percent compared to men, Baker said.
"Right now in 2010, women over their lifetime receive $365,000 less than men," she said. "That is unacceptable."
Our support for Ledbetter became even stronger after we recently reviewed documents in her legal case. That review indicates Ledbetter's own lawyers made some colossal blunders in her lawsuit against Goodyear.
Fame has come Ledbetter's way in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the judgment in her favor. But she walked away from the case pretty much with nothing on the financial end. Public records indicate that might not have happened if her lawyers had handled her case differently.
Ledbetter was represented by Birmingham-based Wiggins Childs Quinn and Pantazis (WCQP), the largest employment law firm in Alabama. WCQP lawyers Robert Wiggins, Jon Goldfarb, and C. Michael Quinn represented Ledbetter. And our review indicates they made several key decisions that wound up costing their client big time.
We don't know if the WCQP lawyers intentionally screwed up the Ledbetter case or if they simply acted in an incompetent fashion. But either way, their client suffered because of it. And as regular readers are aware, we know what it's like to have your own lawyer either work against you--or screw up and leave you holding the proverbial bag.
By the way, the assessment that Ledbetter's lawyers screwed up her case does not come from me; it comes from the words of federal appellate judges, as found in public documents that we will be examining shortly.
Lilly Ledbetter truly is a national hero. A book, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, is due in January 2012. And she has had discussions about turning her story into a movie.
One side of the story that has not been examined, to our knowledge, involves the actions of Ledbetter's own lawyers. The folks at Wiggins Childs generally have been portrayed as good guys who got blind-sided by a partisan Supreme Court.
We have little doubt that the current Supreme Court is partisan--and probably prejudiced against plaintiffs in discrimination cases. But we also have little doubt, based on public documents, that Wiggins Childs seriously botched the Lilly Ledbetter case.
We will be taking a closer look at the issue in future posts.
Below is a video of Lilly Ledbetter discussing the Paycheck Fairness Act.
(To be continued)