US Supreme Court Hears Historical Pay Complaint Case

November 27, 2006 ( - Lawyers for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and the Bush Administration on Monday told US Supreme Court justices that they should enforce a six-month time limit on discriminatory pay allegations or make the complaining employee forfeit the claim.

The assertions from Goodyear attorney Glen Nager and  US Justice Department lawyer Irving Gorenstein came as the high court heard oral arguments in a closely watched case in which a Goodyear employee claimed pay discrimination going back two decades, according to an Associated Press report.

Lilly Ledbetter sued Goodyear, claiming that after 19 years at the company’s  Gadsden, Alabama, plant, she was making $6,000 a year less than the lowest-paid man in the same job. Ledbetter was initially awarded more than $3.8 million. A judge reduced the award to $360,000 (See  Supreme Grants Certiorari to Pay Challenge Dating Back Two Decades). 

According to the news report, the lawyers made the comments as justices debated how to apply the 180-day pay discrimination allegation deadline under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Nager insisted that the justices should follow the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Ledbetter’s discrimination complaints were way beyond the legal deadline and should be dismissed.   The appeals court said Ledbetter mainly was complaining about decisions made by her supervisors long ago, well after the time limit had expired. “Bring that claim or lose it,” Nager declared.

Goodyear denied discriminating against Ledbetter, insisting that she received periodic raises despite being ranked near the bottom of her group of workers. The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business said that if the court rules for the worker in this case, employers would be subject to damages for innocent decisions made years ago that would be difficult to defend because of the passage of time, according to the news report.

“Title VII requires allegedly aggrieved employees like Ledbetter to assert their intentional discrimination claims within the 180-day charge-filing period or lose them,” Goodyear told the court.

Meanwhile, Gorenstein said if the court were to side with Ledbetter, “it would undo the statute of limitations in pay cases.”

Each Paycheck a New Violation?

However, in Ledbetter’s appeal of the 11 th Circuit decision, her lawyers said each paycheck represented a violation of civil rights law by Goodyear, even if the lower pay resulted from discriminatory decisions made years earlier.

“Under the court of appeals’ rule, an employee is condemned to perpetually unequal pay for equal work unless she recognizes and complains about the discrimination within a few short months after it first begins,” Ledbetter’s lawyers said in a court filing.

Ledbetter is being backed by the NAACP, AARP and other rights groups, which said employers would not suffer any consequences for recurring discrimination if they could rebuff allegations merely by arguing the deadline for complaining about the first episode passed.

During the oral arguments Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said applying the 180-day deadline to decisions made years ago makes no sense in a situation in which the disparity grew over time. Early on, “there is no reason to think there is going to be this inequality,” she argued.

But Chief Justice John Roberts was skeptical that employees could “challenge the discrimination 15 years later.”

The case is Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 05-1074.