A deeply divided Supreme Court ruling sharply limits the ability of workers to sue employers for gender pay discrimination linked to actions taken years earlier.
Employer groups praised yesterday's 5-4 decision, saying it protects employers from unfair liability and requires workers to act promptly to protect their rights. Civil rights advocates criticized the ruling, saying it will prevent workers who are discriminated against from recovering all the money they are due from employers.
In its simplest terms, the court said alleged victims of pay discrimination must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the discriminatory act. They cannot seek redress for discrimination prior to that time.
A public policy law firm associated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the decision.
"What the court is doing is reading the statute the way Congress wanted it to read," said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center. "It was to resolve disputes as quickly as possible."
But Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, described the ruling as "a terrible, terrible decision" that "has turned our understanding of employment discrimination law on its head."
The legal decision involved Lilly Ledbetter, who worked for 19 years at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala.
Shortly before her retirement in 1998, she filed an EEOC complaint alleging she was paid significantly less than men doing the same work and that she had been discriminated against for many years.
Ledbetter argued that over the years her male counterparts received larger pay raises than she did, and as a result they eventually earned much more money.
For example, court documents say that she started out in 1979 earning the same as male co-workers. By 1997 she was earning $3,727 per month, the lowest among 15 male co-workers and significantly less than the $5,236 a month earned by the highest paid male co-worker.
Goodyear argued in court that Ledbetter got smaller pay raises because her work was not as good as that of other employees.
Under an anti-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act, which requires review by the EEOC, Ledbetter prevailed in court and eventually won a $360,000 award.
But the award was thrown out by a federal appeals court, which determined that jurors should have looked only at Ledbetter's most recent pay increases, not those dating back for years.
The Supreme Court agreed.
"Ledbetter should have filed an EEOC charge within 180 days after each allegedly discriminatory pay decision was made and communicated to her," wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the majority. Joining him were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, the conservative majority on the court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the minority, said pay disparity between employees can occur over time, as was the case with Ledbetter, and discrimination might not become apparent immediately.
She also said the court's decision would offer a perverse incentive to encourage discrimination lawsuits against employers.
"Today's decision counsels: Sue early on, when it is uncertain whether discrimination accounts for the pay disparity you are experiencing," said Ginsburg, the only woman on the court. Joining her were justices Stephen G. Breyer, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens, the liberal wing of the court.
Michael Hayes, an associate professor who specializes in labor and employment issues at the University of Baltimore School of Law, noted that in many states, such as Maryland, that have anti-discrimination agencies, employees have 300 days in which to file discrimination claims.
Alabama, where the case originated, does not have a state agency dealing with discrimination allegations, Hayes said.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court's decision puts the burden on workers to be even more vigilent about discriminatory workplace policies and actions.
"If you think something is wrong, you should follow up on it quickly," Hayes said. "First, go to the employer and ask for an explanation. The best-protected way to follow up on it is to file a charge rather than asking your employer. That's a judgment call based on how you feel your relations are with your employer."
The National Organization for Women said the decision especially affects victims of job discrimination and harassment based on gender. Other civil rights laws are often used on behalf of the people arguing they are discriminated against for other reasons, such as a disability.
Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, said the decision will discourage women from challenging pay discrimination.