THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York Times Says: Restore Americans' Access to Courts

Let's say you get fired from your job for reasons you suspect are discriminatory -- maybe due to a physical disability or your age. You turn to the courts for justice, but the case gets thrown out immediately, before you're even allowed to access the company documents that could support your claim.

This scenario is becoming the norm due to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that irrationally raised the bar for a plaintiff to file a claim. But last week, the New York Times urged lawmakers to overturn the decisions -- Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009), which built on Bell Atlantic v. Twombly (2007) -- and return the "pleading standard threshold" to that established by the Supreme Court over 50 years ago.

Lawmakers have introduced bills in the House and Senate to do just that, and a wide rage of employment, civil rights, legal, antitrust, and consumer groups support the efforts, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

So how did the Supreme Court change, almost instantly, over 50 years of precedent?

For over half a century, people wishing to file a lawsuit submitted a short statement, called a complaint, describing their case. The claims would then proceed to a stage called "discovery" for the parties to obtain and evaluate the evidence needed to prove or disprove a case.

Now, plaintiffs must show up with the hard facts or the case can get thrown out before it gets to discovery. And since discovery is typically the only way to obtain the necessary information, such as personnel files and internal company memos, the new standard is a catch-22 that has been used to throw out all sorts of important and worthy cases.

It isn't just cases of employment discrimination or civil rights violations that will be negatively affected by the new rulings; for example, if a corporation knowingly sold a defective product, an injured consumer could face an uphill battle for justice, since evidence of the corporation's negligence would only come to light if the case was allowed to proceed.

These new standards will reward negligent corporations that succeed in concealing evidence of wrongdoing while weakening Americans' basic legal protections. Corporate defense attorneys have even called the Iqbal decision "an unexpected gift for the business community."

The legal procedures involved in the decisions are arcane and complex, and the Iqbal decision is only six months old. But news reports note that Iqbal has already been cited by the lower courts thousands of times.

The original standards allowing Americans to seek justice must be restored or thousands more important and valid cases will be dismissed . . . while corporations continue to escape accountability.