US Supreme Court rules pay claims must be filed shortly after discriminatory decision; Ledbetter v Goodyear, 5/29/07

May 29, 2007: In Led­bet­ter v. Goodyear Tire & Rub­ber Com­pa­ny, 550 U.S. 618, 128 S. Ct. 2162 (2007) (Find­Law site opin­ion), the Unit­ed States Supreme Court, in a 5–4 deci­sion, issued an impor­tant deci­sion in a sex dis­crim­i­na­tion case under Title VII of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964, which sub­stan­tial­ly lim­it­ed the time peri­od avail­able to assert a claim for pay dis­crim­i­na­tion. The Supreme Court affirmed the deci­sion of the Eleventh Cir­cuit in Led­bet­ter v. Goodyear Tire and Rub­ber Com­pa­ny, Inc., 421 F.3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2005).

Ledbetter’s Claims of Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion and Low­er Pay, and the Tri­al Result

LillyLedbetter Led­bet­ter filed a charge of sex dis­crim­i­na­tion with the EEOC in 1998 and then lat­er in the year retired. She claimed that, years ear­li­er in her career at Goodyear, male super­vi­sors gave her bad per­for­mance reviews com­pared to what men received. She claimed that Goodyear award­ed rais­es based on those per­for­mance reviews, so that her pay rais­es were reduced as a result of the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry per­for­mance reviews.

Led­bet­ter went to tri­al and per­suad­ed the jury that the per­for­mance reviews, years before she filed her EEOC charge, were dis­crim­i­na­to­ry based on her sex, and the jury found her rights had been vio­lat­ed and award­ed her dam­ages based on her low­er pay­checks through­out her career. The tri­al judge entered a “judg­ment” in Ledbetter’s favor based on the jury’s ver­dict. So Led­bet­ter won at tri­al on her sex dis­crim­i­na­tion claim under Title VII. The Eleventh Cir­cuit Court of Appeals threw out the jury ver­dict and tri­al court judg­ment for Led­bet­ter, and entered a judg­ment in favor of Goodyear, based on her fail­ure to file her EEOC charge with­in 180 days of when the per­for­mance reviews had been con­duct­ed. The Unit­ed States Supreme Court affirmed, mean­ing that Goodyear won.

The Prob­lem for Led­bet­ter Under Title VII Lim­i­ta­tions Pro­vi­sions

Here was the prob­lem for Led­bet­ter: Title VII of the Civ­il Rights Act, which gov­erns sex dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place under fed­er­al law, says that an employ­ee must file a charge of dis­crim­i­na­tion with­in 180 days (or, depend­ing on the state, 300 days) after the dis­crim­i­na­tion occurred about which the employ­ee is com­plain­ing. The Courts, in exam­in­ing when the dis­crim­i­na­tion occurred (for pur­pos­es of fig­ur­ing out when that 180 day “clock” starts to run), have focused on the “dis­crete” employ­ment “deci­sion” that caused some con­se­quence (usu­al­ly pay check-relat­ed) for the employ­ee. Based on when Led­bet­ter filed her EEOC charge in 1998, for it to be time­ly, she had to be com­plain­ing about “deci­sions” which occurred with­in the 180-day win­dow pre­ced­ing the charge. But the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry eval­u­a­tions had occurred years before that, even though the reduced pay­checks about which she com­plained con­tin­ued into that 180-day win­dow.

US Supreme Court: Led­bet­ter Los­es Because She Didn’t File Her Com­plaint Quick Enough

The US Supreme Court held that, in a sit­u­a­tion where a deci­sion (such as a per­for­mance review) was made that dis­crim­i­nat­ed against a female employ­ee by pay­ing her less, the employ­ee was required to file a charge of dis­crim­i­na­tion with the EEOC with­in 180 days of when the deci­sion was made and com­mu­ni­cat­ed to her. That, for Led­bet­ter, would have been with­in 180 days after the bad per­for­mance reviews were con­duct­ed and the results were com­mu­ni­cat­ed to her. Since she did not file EEOC her charge until years lat­er, the charge was not time­ly under Title VII. The con­se­quence is that she los­es all rights under the EEOC charge process, and she los­es all rights to file suit on the same claims in Court under fed­er­al law.

The US Supreme Court’s deci­sion was a 5–4 vote that illus­trates the ide­o­log­i­cal divide on the Court. The 5 vote major­i­ty con­sist­ed of the “con­ser­v­a­tive”; block on the Court (Ali­to, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas), and the 4 vote dis­sent con­sist­ed of the “lib­er­al” block on the Court (Gins­burg, Stevens, Souter, and Brey­er).

The Back­lash, and Con­gress Over­rules the Supreme Court

The deci­sion got a great deal of press atten­tion, being both praised (Kiplinger Busi­ness Resource Cen­ter) and con­demned (New York Times Edi­to­r­i­al). The crit­i­cism of the deci­sion gen­er­at­ed polit­i­cal move­ment for Con­gress to revise the law to undo the deci­sion (NYT edi­to­r­i­al and sto­ry dis­cussing those efforts). On April 24, 2008, the bill that would have over­turned the deci­sion failed to receive the 60 votes required in the Sen­ate to begin con­sid­er­a­tion of the bill (NYT Arti­cle), so the bill died for the time being.

But then after the Novem­ber 2008 elec­tion, where the Democ­rats gained seats in the Sen­ate, Con­gress passed, and Pres­i­dent Oba­ma signed into law (on Jan­u­ary 29, 2009), the Lil­ly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act (Pub. L. 111–2, sec.1, 123 Stat.5), which over­turns the US Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Led­bet­ter v. Goodyear Tire & Rub­ber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007). You can review the his­to­ry of the law on the Library of Con­gress THOMAS site.

For Supreme Court Groupies

The US Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Led­bet­ter is a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to study the sig­nif­i­cance of and con­tro­ver­sy gen­er­at­ed by the US Supreme Court’s deci­sions. Read the press accounts when the deci­sion was issued from the New York Times and the Wash­ing­ton Post. You can also lis­ten, on the Oyez site, to the oral argu­ment in the case before the Supreme Court, and the announce­ment at the Supreme Court of the deci­sion and dis­sent. Or read the tran­script of the oral argu­ment. You can also read the briefs in the case at Read a sum­ma­ry of the deci­sion in the Har­vard Law Review.

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Drew M. Capuder

Publisher of Drew Capuder's Employment Law Blog. Lawyer with more than 29 years experience, focusing on employment law, commercial litigation, and mediation. Extensive trial and appellate experience in state and federal courts. Call Drew at 304-333-5261
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