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Supreme Court Decision Update - Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

pJam.jpgToday’s sole Supreme decision comes in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (PDF of the opinion). Sadly, the case has nothing to do with the Pearl Jam track “Yellow Ledbetter” (although it does give me an excuse to embed a fantastic “Ledbetter”-related YouTube clip at the end of this post).

So Lily Ledbetter worked for Goodyear from 1979 through 1998. For most of that time, salaried employees (like Ledbetter) got raises based on performance evaluations. Ledbetter felt that she was getting shoddy reviews because she was female, and that these reviews were being used to keep her salary down, so she complained about her treatment in 1998 by filing charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and she then sued Goodyear after retiring in November ‘98. Ledbetter claimed, among other things, sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

During the trial, Ledbetter claimed that her supervisors gave her cruddy evaluations because she was a gal and that her raises weren’t as high as they should’ve/would’ve been if she had been given accurate evaluations. As a result, she said that her paychecks were well less than the paychecks of similarly situated males. The jury agreed, awarding her backpay and damages. However, Goodyear appealed and argued that Ledbetter brought her claims too late.

The company said she was time-barred from relying upon any claimed pay discrimination that took place before September 26, 1997, as that date was 180 days before she initially filed with the EEOC (and Title VII essentially establishes this 180-day statute of limitations). Goodyear also claimed that there was no discrimination after that date which would allow her claims to fall within that time period. The Eleventh Circuit agreed, reversing the trial verdict and ruling that a claim of pay discrimination under Title VII must be based on salary decisions that fall within the so-called “EEOC charging period” (that 180-day period before filing with the EEOC). And since the Eleventh said there was no good evidence of discrimination since that September 1997 date, Ledbetter’s claims had no legs.

The Supremes, in a 5-4 split, agreed with the Eleventh. The majority opinion was penned by Justice Alito (and joined by Chief Justice Johnny, the Scalia, and Justices Kennedy and Thomas). Alito notes that the focus must be on the “specific employment practice” at issue. Here, the practice in question is Godyear’s reviews. Ledbetter tried to argue that each time she received a paycheck (which was below what she claimed to be entitled to), this was a separate act of discrimination. She also argued that pre-1998 decisions to deny her a raise should be treated as carrying forward because it led to a buildup of salary disparity. But Alito says this is all bunk. A disparate-treatment claim like Ledbetter’s requires a showing of some employment practice which was done with discriminatory intent. And here, Ledbetter doesn’t claim that there was any intentionally discriminatory action by the company during that 180-day period. She says that any discriminatory conduct happened before, when she was given lousy reviews and lesser pay raises. While there may have been differential treatment within that 180-day period, because of the difference between her paycheck and those of men, she was not able to show any discriminatory intent behind that difference - “Ledbetter’s attempt to take the intent associated with the prior pay decisions and shift it to the 1998 pay decision is unsound.” So Alito says “kiss off.”

Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer. Ginsburg basically disagrees with Alito because she thinks the majority’s system is unfair and lets too many potential discrimination claims fall by the wayside:

Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s views…. Pay disparities are thus significantly different from adverse actions “such as termination, failure to promote, … or refusal to hire,” all involving fully communicated discrete acts, “easy to identify” as discriminatory.

So Ginsburg thinks the unlawful practice is the “current payment” of salary based on gender discrimination, warranting relief under Title VII.

But more importantly, here’s that great YouTube video I mentioned: