Supreme Court Decides Ledbetter v. Goodyear: Past Discrimination Should Stay in the Past

Today the Supreme Court split 5-4 in rejecting a worker's claim of unequal pay, finding that the time for filing such a lawsuit under Title VII begins running with the original decision on a pay differential and ends 180 days later. The majority rejected the arguement that in pay cases there is no new violation each time a later paycheck is issued.

During most of the time that petitioner Ledbetter was employed by respondent Goodyear, salaried employees at the plant where she worked were given or denied raises based on performance evaluations. Ledbetter submitted a questionnaire to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in March 1998 and a formal EEOC charge in July 1998. After her November 1998 retirement, she filed suit, asserting, among other things, a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court allowed her Title VII pay discrimination claim to proceed to trial. There, Ledbetter alleged that several supervisors had in the past given her poor evaluations because of her sex; that as a result, her pay had not increased as much as it would have if she had been evaluated fairly; that those past pay decisions affected the amount of her pay throughout her employment; and that by the end of her employment, she was earning significantly less than her male colleagues. Goodyear maintained that the evaluations had been nondiscriminatory, but the jury found for Ledbetter, awarding backpay and damages. On appeal, Goodyear contended that the pay discrimination claim was time barred with regard to all pay decisions made before September 26, 1997--180 days before Ledbetter filed her EEOC questionnaire--and that no discriminatory act relating to her pay occurred after that date. The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that a Title VII pay discrimination claim cannot be based on allegedly discriminatory events that occurred before the last pay decision that affected the employee's pay during the EEOC charging period, and concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Goodyear had acted with discriminatory intent in making the only two pay decisions during that period, denials of raises in 1997 and 1998.

Held: Because the later effects of past discrimination do not restart the clock for filing an EEOC charge, Ledbetter's claim is untimely.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Stevens, Souter and Breyer) stated:

The Court's insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter's case, insmall increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee's view. Employers may keep under wraps the pay differentials maintained among supervisors, no less the reasonsfor those differentials. Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environ-ment, is averse to making waves.

Pay disparities are thus significantly different from adverse actions "such as termination, failure to promote, . . . or refusal to hire," all involving fully communicateddiscrete acts, "easy to identify" as discriminatory. Citation omitted. It is only when the disparity becomes apparent and sizable, e.g., through future raisescalculated as a percentage of current salaries, that anemployee in Ledbetter's situation is likely to comprehend her plight and, therefore, to complain. Her initial readiness to give her employer the benefit of the doubt should not preclude her from later challenging the then currentand continuing payment of a wage depressed on account ofher sex.

Relevant Links:Court's OpinionPetitioner's BriefRespondent's BriefNational Employment Lawyers Assoc. Amicus BriefNPR Coverage by Nina Totenberg