In The Courts

Judges Weigh Woman's Wage Bias at Goodyear

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Supreme Court heard an appeal Monday by a woman who, at the end of her career, discovered she had suffered wage discrimination for years while working at Goodyear. A decision in her favor could help narrow the persistent gender wage gap.

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Tipped Off by Anonymous Letter

Ledbetter learned of the disparity when she received in 1998 an anonymous letter detailing salaries at the plant. Within a month she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency charged with resolving workplace discrimination complaints.

Ledbetter then took her case to court. She was awarded $3.5 million to cover punitive damages, back pay and mental anguish. The trial judge reduced that amount to $360,000.

But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed the ruling, arguing that her complaints were barred by a time limitation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act saying an individual has 180 days to file a discrimination complaint, a rule made to expedite resolutions and protect companies from facing old, stale charges.

The appeals court barred Ledbetter's suit because the discriminatory acts she complained of took place outside of the 180-day statute of limitations. Even the most recent pay decision prior to the 180-day period was not discriminatory, the court held.

Ledbetter appealed to the Supreme Court, which last June agreed to hear the case.

Statue of Limitations Raised

In yesterday's appearance before the High Court, Glen Nager, who represented Goodyear, argued that Ledbetter's case exceeded the statute of limitations, a rule he said the Supreme Court has honored in past cases. Nager characterized the claim as "untimely" and therefore "inactionable."

Russell countered that the discriminatory pay decisions actually did fall within the statute of limitations because they still affected Ledbetter's salary at the time she filed the complaint. Ledbetter's relatively low salary, he argued, accrued over time as the result of a series of past discriminatory pay decisions based on her gender.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court and a former legal advocate for women's rights, seemed to side with Russell. Treating a discriminatory pay decision as a discrete or isolated act that must be acted upon within six months fails to take into account the greater cumulative effects of such decisions, she said.

"You really don't have an effective claim unless it builds up to the point where you have a noticeable disparity," she said.

But other justices aired concerns about the effect on employers.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, wondered who would be liable if an employer made a discriminatory pay decision before selling the company to another owner. Would the current owner be responsible for discrimination, he asked.

And Chief Justice John Roberts seemed concerned that a decision in favor of Ledbetter would place too great a burden on employers.

Employers would "have to go back and revisit every pay decision or you're exposed to liability for current pay," he said.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.

For more information:

United States Supreme Court:
http://www.supremecourtus.gov/

Transcript of Ledbetter v. the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
[Adobe PDF format]:
http://www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/05-1074.pdf

 

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