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Supreme Court Rules That to Challenge Pay, You'd Better Act Right Away

The lesson from yesterday's 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear can be summarized in a simple rhyme:  If you want to challenge discriminatory pay, you'd better act right away; otherwise, your employer will be shouting, "Hooray!"   From this post at SCOTUS Blog, here's the scoop on Ledbetter.  Petitioner Lily Ledbetter worked at Goodyear Tire Co. for 19 years.  At the end of her career, her salary was significantly lower than that of her male counterparts because over the years, she was denied various pay raises that were available to men.  Consequently, Ledbetter filed an EEOC claim alleging sex discrimination with relation to pay and prevailed at the lower court level.  The 11th Circuit reversed on appeal, arguing that the bulk of her claim reached back to salary decisions made years earlier, well outside of the 180-day limit for raising claims of discriminatory employment practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  The Supreme Court affirmed the 11th Circuit, finding that Ledbetter's claim was time-barred.  Writing for the majority of five justices, Justice Alito reasoned that the prohibited discriminatory act occurred at the time that the salary decisions were made, and not at the time years later when the cumulative impacts were realized. 

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the dissent (which included Breyer, Stevens and Souter), disagreed and read her dissent from the bench.  Ginsburg analogized discriminatory pay cases to hostile environment cases, where the impacts build up over time, and may not be realized for many months or years.   And Ginsburg threw the ball back to Congress, urging its assistance in expanding the Court's "cramped" view of the statutory deadlines in Title VII.

So that's the view from the high court bench, but what about the views from that other important panel, the blogosphere?  Naturally, they're mixed about the opinion as well:

At Workplace Blog, Paul Secunda reflects that Justice Ginsburg has the better of the argument, because individual pay decisions by themselves may not have obvious discriminatory intent until a pattern is established, which takes time.  As a result, the Court's decision:

leads to an absurd situation where employees either must bring pay claims prematurely when there is not enough evidence that there has been unlawful pay discrimination or wait to a later time when there exists more substantial evidence of pay discrimination and be barred from bringing such claims by the statute of limitations (as in Ledbetter).

Ross Runkel of Employment Law Memo likes Secunda's analysis, but believes nonetheless that the Supreme Court got it right.  Runkel writes:

I jump off Paul's wagon when he says pay discrimination decisions are more like hostile environment claims than they are like a discrete act such as a termination or demotion. Quoting Paul: "As with hostile work environment sexual harassment claims, individual pay decisions by themselves do not have the obvious discriminatory intent that discrete acts such as terminations or failures to promote do." Not so. In the Ledbetter case, a pay decision was made once a year, and then implemented via paychecks. One single decision. In a hostile environment case, the claim by its very nature involves a cumulation of several events that have to be added together before the environment is sufficiently hostile for a claim to arise.

Finally, from Howard Bashman, you can find your usual round up of news articles covering the Ledbetter decision.

As for me, this case seems to be an example of bad facts making bad law.  Nineteen years is an awfully long time to wait to challenge even a series of pay decisions -- and Alito and the majority apparently do not believe that employers should face unlimited liability for past salary decisions that may reach back many years, or even decades.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 30, 2007 at 06:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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