Calif. tort reform group eyes pending bills

Chris Rizo Oct. 9, 2009, 1:44pm

Kim Stone

Dave Cox (R)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-Amid the hundreds of bills sitting on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk are proposals that have tort reformers nervous - but not really.

You see, the Republican governor has said he will not act on some-700 bills before Sunday's constitutional deadline unless he and state legislative leaders agree on a plan to upgrade the state's complex water system.

Political observers say it is a bit of a gamble for the governor to hold the bills hostage for a deal on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Most agree that Schwarzenegger has little leverage over the Democrat-led Legislature given his lame duck status.

Kim Stone, vice president of legislation for the Civil Justice Association of California, told Legal Newsline that she is watching closely three bills awaiting action by the governor.

Amid the stack of bills are proposals that would make it easier for California workers to sue for alleged age discrimination on the job.

The bill was introduced in response to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision -- Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber -- that employees cannot challenge ongoing pay discrimination if the employer's original discriminatory pay decision occurred outside of the statute of limitations.

The California legislation is very similar to a Ledbetter-inspired bill the governor vetoed last year, Stone said.

The reasons for the governor to veto the proposal this year are even more compelling than last year given that Congress has since passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, she said.

"That means he 'problem' of the Ledbetter case has been solved so there is no need for this California bill, which goes even farther than the federal bill did and potentially undoes the statute of limitations in all employment discrimination cases - not just sex discrimination cases," Stone said.

A second bill on Stone's watch list is a proposal that would limit the ability of insurance companies to cancel coverage for patients diagnosed with serious illnesses, a practice known as rescission.

Assembly Bill 2, backed by the California Medical Association, would allow state regulators to block the rescission of coverage so long as a patient is not found to have intentionally lied to the insurer about preexisting conditions.

The governor vetoed a similar measure -- AB 1945 -- last year amid the opposition's concerns that the bill would lead to excessive litigation.

"His reasons for vetoing the bill last year, one would hope, would remain," Stone said.

A third bill, Assembly Bill 335, would "disfavor" employers use of forum selection and choice of law clauses in their employment contracts.

The governor last year vetoed a similar bill that would have barred employers from placing selection and choice of law clauses in their contracts with workers.

"It's going to be hard for this bill to survive," Stone said.

State Sen. Dave Cox, R-Sacramento, blamed the strong Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature for business-unfriendly bills reaching the governor's desk.

In the Senate, where Cox serves, there are 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans. With Democrats in control, he said Republicans are unable to stymie many bills, including trial lawyer-backed proposals that expand civil liability.

"One of the interesting things about being in the California Legislature is when you are in the minority sometimes it is difficult to get anything done," he said. "Under every circumstance, 25 always beats 15."

As for the governor's veto threat, state Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, said the move amounts to extortion.

He sent a letter this week to Democrat Attorney General Jerry Brown, asking him to investigate.

"While politicians are certainly allowed to express their disagreements in any way they find productive, they are not allowed to refuse to perform their sworn duties in order to force the Legislature to accept policy positions," Torrico wrote. "And public officials are specifically prohibited from the kind of direct 'horse trading' in which a government official agrees to take, or not take, a certain action in exchange for a specific vote."

State law says the governor has 30 days to act on bills after the legislative session's end.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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