WASHINGTON (CN) - Lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on a bill designed to lower the standard of evidence needed to bring civil cases to trial, particularly employment actions. Opponents called the bill an "economic stimulus package for lawyers," while proponents said lowering the bar would give plaintiffs more chances to seek necessary files and proof during the discovery stage.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy spoke warmly of the bill, calling it a necessary step towards properly investigating claims. Republicans criticized it as a way for plaintiffs to bring baseless litigation and to abuse defendants by making them comply with sometimes expensive investigations.
The law, as defined by Supreme Court rulings in Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, requires that a plaintiff have enough evidence to convince a judge that his claims are plausible before the trial process begins.
The Open Access to Courts Act of 2009 would change the requirement to prohibit federal judges from dismissing cases, "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief."
Democrats pointed to what they called a 10 percent increase in dismissals since the 2009 Iqbal ruling. Dismissals "may throw out the baby with the bath water," Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr. said. "The plaintiffs have to prove their case before they have the chance to gather the evidence to prove their claims."
In his testimony supporting the bill, University of Washington Law Professor Eric Schnapper said that current law only ensnared "inept discriminators," and said cases with more veiled discrimination, in the case of employment, would be too easily turned away. He called it "an exception for good liars."
Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, on the other hand, said the bill "would cause a huge flood of claims filed by plaintiffs," and called the bill a gift to trial lawyers. He said that just like criminal investigators need a warrant to search a house, so should plaintiffs who wish to search documents of defendants.
Former Assistant Attorney General Gregory Katsas said that costs defendants must bear to search through their documents are non-reimbursable and can add up to millions of dollars in complex cases, suggesting that defendants could easily be abused by baseless litigation if the bill is adopted.
The legislation was primarily authored by New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, who said Congress can change civil procedure.
The legislation is still before the subcommittee and has many hurdles to clear before it is adopted.
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