The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Egregious Pay Discrimination Supreme Court Decision Part of Larger Trend

Feature Story by Daniel Wolf - 6/4/2007

The ability of workers to sue their employers for pay discrimination was drastically limited on May 30 in a divided Supreme Court ruling.

The Court, in a 5-4 decision in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, significantly reinterpreted the meaning of a core employment protection provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ruling that employees may not sue their employers for pay discrimination after 180 days from the day that pay decisions are handed down.

The Court's new interpretation of the 180-day window departs from the longstanding view that pay discrimination occurs every time an employee receives a paycheck that is tainted by a discriminatory pay decision – no matter when the decision was made.

"It is so disappointing that the Court, by the narrowest of majorities, used a distorted reading of the law to give an employer that discriminated a free pass, and to deny justice and back pay to a victim of pay discrimination," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The pay discrimination lawsuit was brought by Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire employee in Gadsden, AL, who was paid thousands of dollars less than her male counterparts over a 19-year period.

Under the Court's new interpretation, women like Ledbetter, as well as minorities, older Americans, and people with disabilities will have a more difficult time proving pay discrimination in the workplace.

Civil rights advocates say that the Ledbetter decision is the latest in a string of decisions that signal a troubling shift by the Court to weaken the meaning and effectiveness of the nation's core civil rights statutes.

"In recent years, the Court has flouted precedent after precedent and undermined the very foundation of our nation's ability to live up to the promise of equal treatment under the law," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR).

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the unusual step of reading a summary of her dissent from the bench, pointing out the dangers of the majority's reinterpretation of the Civil Rights Act and calling on Congress "to correct this Court's parsimonious reading of [the law]."

Senators Edward M. Kennedy, D. Mass., Hillary Clinton, D. N.Y., Barbara Mikulski, D. Md., and Tom Harkin, D. Iowa, have promised to introduce legislation in the Senate that will make clear Congress's desire to protect victims of pay discrimination. Representative George Miller, D. Ca., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D. D.C., and Rosa DeLauro, D. Conn., have pledged to do the same in the House.

"The Leadership Conference applauds Congress' commitment to fixing this decision and hopes it will act thoroughly and expeditiously to right this wrong," said Henderson. "We also hope Congress will revisit other recent misguided interpretations of civil rights law in order to ensure adequate access to courts and real remedies for victims of discrimination. 

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