Supreme Court Restricts Pay Discrimination Cases

Lilly Ledbetter worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company at its Gadsden, Alabama plant from 1979 until 1998. During much of this time, salaried employees at the plant were given or denied raises based on performance evaluations.

In March 1998, Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that during the course of her employment, several supervisors had given her poor evaluations because of her sex. As a result of these poor evaluations, Ledbetter contended, her pay had not been increased as much as it would have been if she had been evaluated fairly. In essence, Ledbetter was arguing that the past pay evaluations continued to affect the amount of her pay throughout her employment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires that individuals wishing to challenge an employment practice file a charge with the EEOC within a specified period “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” In Ledbetter’s case, she was required to file the charge within 180 days of the unlawful employment practice. Ledbetter contended that the paychecks she received within the 180-day period prior to her filing with the EEOC continued the impact of the prior discriminatory performance evaluations, and that her complaint to the EEOC was timely.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected Ledbetter’s arguments. The Court commented that Ledbetter’s argument “would require us in effect to jettison the defining element of the legal claim on which her Title VII recovery was based. Ledbetter asserted disparate treatment, the central element of which is discriminatory intent. However, Ledbetter does not assert that the relevant Goodyear decision makers acted with actual discriminatory intent either when they issued her checks during the EEOC charging period or when they denied her a raise in 1998. Rather, she argues that the paychecks were unlawful because they would have been larger if she had been evaluated in a non-discriminatory manner prior to the EEOC charging period.”

The Court held that “the EEOC charging period is triggered when a discrete unlawful practice takes place. A new violation does not occur, and a new charging period does not commence, upon the occurrence of subsequent non-discriminatory acts that entail adverse effects resulting from the past discrimination.”

The four dissenting judges commented that the majority opinion “overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small 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 reasons for 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 environment, is averse to making waves.”

Almost immediately following the Court’s decision, a group of senators, including Edward Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Barbara Mikulski, announced their intention to introduce legislation to overturn the Ledbetter decision.

Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., Inc., 127 S.Ct. 2162 (2007).

This article appears in the July 2007 issue