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Justices Limit Time Employees Can Sue over Pay Disparity

May 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on pay discrimination, as reported by NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Marcia, welcome.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Thanks, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: First, the basic facts of this case. What are they?

MARCIA COYLE: Lilly Ledbetter was a production supervisor in the Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Alabama. She was in that job for nearly 20 years. In 1998, she left the plant because she was going to be transferred to a job that was less preferable to her. She filed a claim of discrimination, that her pay was lower than it should have been all those years she worked, and it was lower because of her sex.

JIM LEHRER: And what happened with her lawsuit that she filed?

MARCIA COYLE: She proved to a jury that Goodyear had…

JIM LEHRER: A regular federal district court jury?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, absolutely, that Goodyear had discriminated on the basis of gender in her salary, and she won damages. She won back pay of about $200,000. She won punitive damages of over $3 million. The $3 million was reduced to $300,000, because Title VII, the statute that governs these types of lawsuits, caps those damages.

JIM LEHRER: All right, then it went through the appeals process.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it did. And an appellate court threw it all out. She lost everything.

JIM LEHRER: This is the U.S. appeals court?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it is, because the appellate court said she had not filed her claim within the 180 days that the law requires. Title VII, as you know, is the federal statute that bars discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion. Before you can bring a suit under Title VII, you have to file what they call a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ruling for Goodyear

JIM LEHRER: All right, so it went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court today ruled for the company against Ms. Ledbetter, correct?

MARCIA COYLE: That's right, 5-4.

JIM LEHRER: ... 5-4. Who were the five, and what was their reasoning?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Samuel Alito wrote the decision for the majority, and he was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.

JIM LEHRER: And what was their reasoning?

MARCIA COYLE: OK. Ms. Ledbetter had argued that the 180-day rule, the clock starts ticking on that 180 days with each paycheck, that the discriminatory practice here is not the company's decision to discriminate, but it's the actual payment of the paycheck. So for each paycheck over all those years, the company was violating the law.

JIM LEHRER: For the 19-plus years then, every paycheck she got...


JIM LEHRER: ... she felt she was discriminated under this federal law?

MARCIA COYLE: But the court said that Goodyear's argument was correct, that the discriminatory practice is the decision to discriminate, and you have to file your claim within 180 days of that decision. Courts said the decision is what counts, not the effects of the decision that you may feel every year thereafter.

Justice Alito said the 180-day rule is a short period of time, but it's short because Congress intended to have these claims resolved promptly and to protect employers from defending against very old claims.

Dissenting opinions

JIM LEHRER: Now, the four in the minority were the four liberals.


JIM LEHRER: And tell us what they had to say.

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who as you know has litigated as a lawyer when she was with the ACLU, many women rights cases.

JIM LEHRER: That was her specialty, in fact, was it not?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it was. And she made some of the major decisions that are on the books now in that area. She wrote the dissenting opinion, and she was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Stephen Breyer.

She said, the court either didn't understand or was indifferent to the insidious ways in which women are victims of pay discrimination. In the real world, she said, pay disparities start small and build over time. Your reason to suspect discrimination also develops over time, one, because you don't know what your co-worker is being paid. Employers keep that information private.

And if you're a woman like Lilly Ledbetter, who was in a non-traditional job -- she was a path-breaker. She was one of the first women to be in this position...


MARCIA COYLE: A path-breaker.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, OK, got it.

MARCIA COYLE: You may not want to make waves, even if you suspect that there is pay discrimination. So she felt the court took what she called a very cramped view of Title VII.

Changing the law in Congress

JIM LEHRER: And she also said Congress -- it ought to go back to Congress now to change the law, right?

MARCIA COYLE: She did. She pointedly noted that, in 1991, Congress overturned a series of workplace discrimination decisions by the Supreme Court from 1989, because, she said, the court back then took a similarly cramped view of the broad purposes of Title VII.

JIM LEHRER: In simplest terms here, we had five conservatives and the four liberals, right? Clean.


JIM LEHRER: OK. Are there far-reaching implications about this or only short-term things with Ms. Ledbetter and others in her similar situation?

MARCIA COYLE: I think there are really two impacts here. One, it's going to be very difficult for many workers to challenge illegal pay discrimination for the very reasons that Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the nature of pay discrimination. It's not like a discriminatory firing or hiring or...

Ruling's impact

JIM LEHRER: It's not one act.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right, exactly. And, secondly, the impact is large because of the reach of Title VII. This case was about gender discrimination, but Title VII also covers discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin and religion.

And, finally, this 180-day rule, the wording in Title VII is very similar to the rule in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. So workers who feel they're being discriminated in their pay on the basis of disability and age also will be affected by the court's interpretation here.

JIM LEHRER: So, potentially, millions of people could be affected?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, millions of workers.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Marcia, thank you very much.

MARCIA COYLE: You're welcome.