President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay bill into law today in front of cheering labor and women leaders. Standing beside him was the plaintiff in the discrimination lawsuit that eventually led to the passage of the law, Lilly Ledbetter.
Obama, choosing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as the first bill to sign as president, called it a "wonderful day" and declared that ending pay disparities between men and woman an issue not just for women, but for all workers.
In 1979 Lilly Ledbetter began work at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in its Gadsden, Alabama location, a union plant. During her years at the factory as a salaried worker, raises were given and denied based on evaluations and recommendations regarding worker performance, as is typical. All merit increases had to be substantiated by a formal evaluation. In March 1998, after she received an anonymous note Ledbetter inquired into the possible sexual discrimination of the Goodyear Tire Company with regards to her being paid less than her male counterparts. In July she filed formal charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In November 1998, after early retirement, Ledbetter sued claiming pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The jury found for Ledbetter and awarded back pay and damages. Goodyear appealed, arguing that all claims to damages before September 26, 1997 were void due to the statute of limitations placed on discrimination claims.
By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Goodyear, holding that a person must file a claim of discrimination within 180 days of a company's initial decision to pay a worker less than it pays another worker doing the same job, regardless of whether the employee even learns of the discriminatory decision during this short time frame.
Democrats, women's groups, labor groups, and even some Republicans ridiculed the Court's decision as obviously absurd. For all practical purposes it eliminated any remedy for gender-based pay discrimination in the United States. Some lower courts started to apply the same logic in other cases, ruling that disabled residents of an apartment complex had to sue to enforce ADA accessibility standards within 180 days of the building being built, even if they did not live there at the time.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
In 2007, several Democratic members of Congress introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which revised the law to state that the 180-day statute of limitations for pay discrimination resets with each new discriminatory paycheck. The bill became an issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign, with Barack Obama supporting the bill, and John McCain opposed to it. The plaintiff in the case, Lilly Ledbetter, appeared in campaign ads for the Obama campaign and had a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention.
Today, the bill became law. The measure, which amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act, also applies to discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin, disability or age.
Here are some links to additional information, audio and video:
- Supreme Court's opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (docket 05-1074)
- Here is a video of the signing ceremony: