SUPREME COURT SLAPS WOMEN
June 27, 2007
The May 29 US Supreme Court ruling limiting the ability of workers to sue companies for pay discrimination will make it harder for workers to recover wages unfairly denied them, experts say.
The 5–to–4 decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, dismissed a suit by Lilly Ledbetter, an employee for 19 years at a tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., who says she was paid less than her male counterparts. The High Court said she did not file her lawsuit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. within 180 days after the discrimination occurred as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A jury originally awarded Ledbetter more than $3.5 million because it found that gender discrimination led her to being paid less. An appeals court reversed the ruling saying the law requires that a suit be filed within 180 days.
Before the May 29 ruling, many courts allowed workers to sue for pay discrimination years after the initial discrimination because the courts considered each new paycheck a new discriminatory act.
In a strong dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, said the majority opinion “overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination.” She said that given the secrecy in most workplaces about salaries, many employees would have no idea within 180 days that they had received a lower raise than others. The court’s decision is a “setback for women and a setback for civil rights,” says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of National Women’s Law Center.
“The ruling essentially says tough luck to employees who don’t immediately challenge their employer’s discriminatory acts, even if the discrimination continues to the present time. Not only does the ruling ignore the reality of pay discrimination, it also cripples the law’s intent to address it, and undermines the incentive for employers to prevent and correct it.”
In her dissent, Ginsburg invited Congress to change the law to eliminate the 180-day rule, saying the ball is in Congress’ court. Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she plans to introduce such a bill. Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, agrees legislation is needed:
“This ruling will force Congress to clarify the law’s intention that the ongoing effects of discriminatory decisions are just as unacceptable as the decisions themselves.”
While the ruling involved charges of gender discrimination, according to The New York Times, some experts say it could have broad ramifications in cases involving discrimination because of race or national origin, narrowing the legal options of many employees.
Some legal experts said the ruling would put pressure on workers to file discrimination claims within 180 days even when they are still seeking more conclusive evidence that they were discriminated against.
As James Brudney, a professor of labor and employment law at Ohio State University, told The Times:
“Unless they notice it on the first paycheck or a recent paycheck, they’re going to be in trouble.”