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Supreme Court Eases Plaintiffs' Task in Sex-Bias Lawsuits

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Washington--Employers sued for sex discrimination must bear the burden of proving in court that their challenged actions were motivated by legitimate business concerns, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

The Court's decision in the case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (Case No. 87-1164), is expected to make it easier for women in teaching and other professions to win cases alleging sex bias in employment, which is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Justices, however, also ruled that an employer can win its case if it demonstrates "by a preponderance of evidence" that its decision was not based on illegal discrimination. A federal appeals court had ruled in the case that employers had to present "clear and convincing" evidence to back its position, a more stringent legal hurdle in civil lawsuits.

In other action last week, the Court declined to hear the state of Hawaii's appeal of lower-court orders that forced it to accept a settlement for compensatory damages from two asbestos manufacturers.

The case, Hawaii v. Proko Industries Inc. (No. 88-1484), stems from developments in In Re: School Asbestos Litigation, a nationwide class action aimed at recovering the cost of removing the cancer-causing substance from schools.

In 1987, the federal district judge hearing the class action gave all potential plaintiffs an Aug. 1, 1987 deadline by which to decide whether to participate in the suit. The judge later moved the deadline back to June 22.

Lawyers for Hawaii said the state was never informed of the new deadline and filed its notice to opt out of the lawsuit on July 31.

A short while later, the judge announced that two of the more than 50 firms named in the suit had agreed to a settlement. Hawaii officials, who said the state hoped to initiate a separate suit in state courts to collect damages, were forced to accept the settlement.

Federal district and appeals courts rejected the state's argument that its forced inclusion in the settlement violated its 14th Amendment right to due process and other constitutional and statutory provisions.

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