This case summary was written by Elizabeth Bowman for the Law Library blog. You can listen to Justice Ginsburg announce her dissent and imagine her wearing her “dissent jabot” (see the display in the Law Library lobby): https://apps.oyez.org/player/#/roberts2/opinion_announcement_audio/22216. The decision in this case led to the enactment of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-2, § 1, Jan. 29, 2009, 123 Stat. 5. You may view the Act on Heinonline’s U.S. Statutes at Large collection or on http://www.congress.gov using advanced search and selecting the 111th Congress.
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007)
Lilly Ledbetter worked as a supervisor for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company at its Gadsden, Alabama plant from 1979 to 1998. By the end of Ledbetter’s tenure, her salary was $3,727.00, while her lowest paid male counterpart earned $4,286.00 and the highest paid earned $5,236.00. In 1998, Ledbetter filed a complaint with EEOC and then sued Goodyear under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that poor performance evaluations because of her sex resulted in lower pay than her male coworkers.
A jury found for Ledbetter and awarded her over $3.5 million in back pay and damages, which the district judge later reduced to $360,000. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that Ledbetter’s claim was time barred. Title VII requires that a charge must be filed with EEOC within 180 or 300 days, depending on the state, from the date of the alleged violation. The Court of Appeals concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove that Goodyear acted with discriminatory intent in making only two pay decisions that occurred within the 180-day filing deadline.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether and under what circumstances a plaintiff may bring an action under Title VII alleging illegal pay discrimination when the disparate pay is received during the statutory limitations period, but is the result of intentionally discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period. In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court held that discriminatory intent must occur during the 180-day statutory period, and thus, Ledbetter’s claim was untimely filed.
Justice Ginsburg sharply disagreed with the majority and read from the bench her passionate dissent. Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued that pay disparities are significantly different from other types of discrimination, such as termination or failure to promote, which are “easy to identify” and allow a worker to immediately seek redress. Pay discrimination on the other hand is often “hidden from sight”, occur in increments, and become evident only over time. Justice Ginsburg explained that rather than viewing salary setting decisions as “discrete from prior and subsequent decisions,” as the majority did, the better approach, consistent with Title VII’s purpose and Supreme Court precedent, is to “treat each payment of a wage or salary infected by sex-based discrimination” as an unlawful employment practice and “prior decisions, outside the 180–day charge-filing period,” although not actionable themselves, as “relevant in determining the lawfulness of conduct within the period.” Justice Ginsburg took into account the realities of the workplace in her opinion. She ultimately determined that the Court’s “cramped” interpretation of Title VII was “incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose.”
Less than two years later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law in 2009, which reversed the Supreme Court’s decision and makes clear that each discriminatory paycheck resets the 180-day limit to file a claim, helping to ensure that individuals subjected to illegal pay discrimination may effectively assert their rights.