Question:

I recently saw a news story about a Supreme Court decision that supposedly makes it harder for employees to make a claim for discrimination based on unequal pay. Can you explain the ruling in this case and why the Court did what it did? I had thought that the law really favored plaintiffs in these kinds of cases.

Answer:

It sounds like you are referring to the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., which was recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court’s decision does limit the potential liability that employers may face under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for discriminatory actions in the form of unequal pay for men and women. However, the Court’s 5-4 decision has been somewhat controversial, and may be subject to change.

The plaintiff in the case, Lilly Ledbetter, was a supervisor at a mostly male Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama. After nearly 20 years with Goodyear, Ms. Ledbetter learned that she was making significantly less money than her male counterparts. Ms. Ledbetter attributed this to several negative performance evaluations, which had resulted in her receiving smaller pay increases than her male colleagues. Ms. Ledbetter claimed that her poor performance reviews were the result of sex discrimination, and that if she had been evaluated fairly she would have received larger raises over the years. Ms. Ledbetter argued that these salary decisions had therefore negatively affected her compensation throughout the course of her employment.

The law provides that an individual wishing to bring a federal discrimination lawsuit must first file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the unlawful employment action being complained of. Ms. Ledbetter complained of discrimination to the EEOC in July of 1998. Following her retirement from Goodyear, Ms. Ledbetter sued the company for sex discrimination under Title VII, and was awarded back pay and damages. On appeal, Goodyear argued that no discriminatory act had occurred within the 180-day period preceding Ms. Ledbetter’s EEOC claim, and that her pay discrimination claim was therefore barred. This issue went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court found that Ms. Ledbetter could not bring a claim against Goodyear for sex discrimination in the form of unequal wages because no discrimination had taken place in the 180 days preceding the filing of her EEOC charge. The Court found that the “later effects of past discrimination” did not “restart the clock,” and that Ms. Ledbetter’s EEOC charge was therefore untimely. In other words, even if Goodyear had discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter in the past, she could not show that she had been discriminated against recently enough to support a claim. The Court’s decision discounted the argument that Goodyear’s discrimination prior to the 180-day charging period had “carried forward” into that period.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Ginsberg wrote that each payment of a wage that is “infected by sex-based discrimination” constitutes an unlawful employment practice, and that with each paycheck Ms. Ledbetter received, Goodyear was continuing to contribute to the harm against her. Justice Ginsberg chastised the majority for a “cramped interpretation of Title VII,” and urged Congress to pass legislation to overrule the decision. Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives have already announced that they will introduce bills to that effect.

In California, a discrimination claim under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) must be filed within one year of the alleged discriminatory act.  However, California courts recognize a “continuing violation” doctrine, which permits a plaintiff to sue for an entire course of discrimination, including employer actions occurring outside the charging period.

It still remains to be seen just what the impact is of the Ledbetter ruling, and whether that decision will remain good law in the future. In the meanwhile, employees (in California and elsewhere) with wage discrimination claims will likely opt to sue under other statutes that have fewer limitations, such as the Equal Pay Act (EPA).  Unlike Title VII, the EPA does not require proof of discriminatory intent, and is subject to a longer statute of limitations period.
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