High Court Limits Sex Discrimination Claims

Justice Alito writes for the majority; opinion illustrates court's shift.

May 29, 2007 — -- A deeply divided Supreme Court made it harder Tuesday for women to sue their employers for paying them less than their male counterparts.

In a 5-4 decision by Justice Samuel Alito, the court rejected arguments by an Alabama woman that she could hold her employer, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, liable for failing to pay her as much as male co-workers during the years she was a factory supervisor. It tossed out a jury decision awarding her back pay and damages.

The court said the woman, Lilly Ledbetter, had waited too long to file her claim under a federal sex discrimination law.

Court Limits Sexism Suits

The court said the law was clear: employees must file their discrimination complaints within 180 days of the incident, and Ledbetter had pointed to pay decisions that had occurred years before.

Writing for the majority, Alito said, "Current effects alone cannot breathe life into prior, uncharged discrimination."

The decision prompted a fierce dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said the court ignored the "real-world characteristics of pay discrimination." Ginsburg said it was unreasonable to expect Ledbetter and other women to know immediately that their pay was out of line.

She said Congress had intended for that kind of discrimination to be covered by the federal law, even if the statute didn't say so outright.

Reading her dissent from the bench, Ginsburg said that an employee may "have little reason even to suspect discrimination until a pattern develops incrementally and she ultimately becomes aware of" the pay disparity with her male colleagues.

Ginsburg said the court should have read the law to give employees more time to file such complaints because the inequities are at times harder to discern: "Comparative pay information is not routinely communicated to employees. Instead, it is often hidden from the employee's view."

Divided Opinion

Goodyear released a statement praising the decision and saying that it endorses the company's "long-standing zero-tolerance policy toward any of type of discrimination, which also encourages employees to report concerns about discrimination in a timely fashion so they can be promptly and fairly reviewed and remedied."

Kevin K. Russell, a lawyer for Ledbetter, called the decision "disappointing" and said it was going to make it harder for people to bring pay discrimination cases. "It means that unless you figure out you are being discriminated against in a short period of time, you will have a hard time with any challenge."

After the decision, advocacy groups urged Congress to revisit the issue.

Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said the decision is a "painful and costly step backward," adding, "This case potentially has implications for victims of other forms of employment discrimination -- pay discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, age or disability."

Supreme Court Shift

The decision was the first major ruling by Alito and shows the changing direction of the court following Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement.

Joining his opinion was Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Had Alito not taken O'Connor's place in January 2006, the decision likely would have gone the other way. The same could be said of last month's 5-4 decision upholding the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Alito's opinion reflects no ambivalence. It is confident and direct, pointedly rejecting Ginsburg's interpretation of the law.

It also rejects the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that administers the federal law, which had said lawsuits like Ledbetter's could proceed.

Alito writes that the strict 180 day deadline "reflects Congress' strong preference for the prompt resolution of employment discrimination allegations through voluntary conciliation and cooperation."