June 24, 2013

Supreme Court makes it harder to sue businesses 


By JESSE J. HOLLAND / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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TV crews wait outside the Supreme Court in Washington as key decisions are announced Monday.

The Associated Press

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Court won't shield Pfizer from asbestos lawsuits

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to shield Pfizer Inc. from some asbestos lawsuits connected to its Quigley Co. subsidiary, a bankrupt unit that stopped most operations in 1992.

The justices on Monday rejected Pfizer's appeal of a ruling that opened the New York-based drugmaker to some claims related to Quigley, which made asbestos-containing products for the steel industry from the 1940s to the 1970s. Pfizer acquired Quigley in 1968. Asbestos, once widely used an insulator, was later shown to cause cancer.

Pfizer, the world's largest drugmaker, contended that Quigley's bankruptcy proceedings insulated the parent company from suits filed under Pennsylvania state law by the Baltimore law firm of Peter Angelos.

The firm began suing Pfizer in Pennsylvania state courts in 1999, saying the company was legally responsible for some claims because its logo appeared on Quigley products.

Pfizer says it played no role in making or selling the Quigley products. A federal appeals court in New York said the claims against Pfizer could go forward.

The Obama administration urged the high court to reject Pfizer's appeal.
 

"We hold that an employee is a 'supervisor' for purpose of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim," Alito said.

"Because there is no evidence that BSU empowered Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Vance, the judgment of the Seventh Circuit is affirmed."

Alito shook his head as Ginsburg read her dissent of his opinion. "The court's disregard for the realities of the workplace means that many victims of workplace harassment will have no effective remedy," she said.

Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron said the court made the wrong decision.

"Deferring to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, the Supreme Court majority has imposed a heavier burden for victims of workplace harassment and discrimination seeking justice in our courts," she said. "This decision makes it far easier for employers to evade responsibility for discrimination and harassment in the workplace."

Alito, Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted together in those cases.

Ginsburg, and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented together both times.

Ginsburg said she hopes Congress intervenes in both cases. For example, President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which effectively overturned a Supreme Court decision that had strictly limited workers' ability to file lawsuits over pay inequity.

"Today, the ball again lies in Congress' court to correct this court's wayward interpretations of Title VII," she said.

Ginsburg's call was soon joined by other organizations.

"The rulings are a step backwards in our efforts to ensure equal economic opportunity and to fulfill the promise of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. "We call on Congress to once again take action to correct the court's flawed and narrow interpretations of Title VII, just as Congress has done repeatedly in the past."

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