Lilly Ledbetter and her lawyer Kevin Russell

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Can a victim of wage discrimination sue her employer if she fails to file a complaint to the government within the six-month statute of limitations imposed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

What if the victim didn’t know she was being discriminated against until after the statute of limitations had expired?

Exactly how long, in other words, does an employee have to complain if she is being paid less for the same work because of her gender?

Those were the questions raised Monday by members of the Supreme Court, who heard the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a former employee at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama who was almost 60 years old, and near retirement, before she found out her employer had for years been paying her substantially less than her male counterparts for the same work.

During the hour-long hearing, justices grilled lawyers on both sides of the case with a smattering of hypothetical questions regarding workplace discrimination, but few revealed clear positions on the nuanced case.

"I thought the justices had serious questions for both sides," said Kevin Russell, who argued the case on Ledbetter’s behalf. He said he thought the judges were trying to balance the rights of workers against the rights of employers facing stale complaints.

"There are a number of justices who could be swing votes," Russell told reporters on the court’s marble steps after the hearing. "I didn’t get a great sense of who those justices would be. This was a quiet bench."

Justices are expected to rule before the end of June 2007, when the current term ends.

Decision Affecting Millions

Their decision will apply to millions of employees and employers in the private and public sector and, depending on the outcome, could help address the persistent wage gap.

More than 40 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal for employers to pay men and women unequal wages if they hold the same job, women’s wages still lag behind those of their male counterparts, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of women’s and civil rights organizations in Washington, D.C. In 2005, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by a male, according to the committee.

A decision in favor of Ledbetter could help other victims of wage discrimination recoup their losses.

In 1979 Ledbetter was hired as a supervisor at Goodyear’s tire assembly department in Gadsden, Ala. At the time she was hired, she was paid the same amount as Terry Amberson, a similarly situated man, according to On the Docket, a legal news service published by Northwestern University.

But 19 years later, Ledbetter was earning $15,000 less per year than Amberson, according to Northwestern’s case summary. In fact, her annual salary fell below that of all her male counterparts in the tire assembly department and was even lower than recent hires with far less experience.

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:

Transcript of Ledbetter v. the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.