WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court limited workers’ ability to sue for pay discrimination Tuesday, ruling against a Goodyear employee who earned thousands of dollars less than her male counterparts but waited too long to complain.
The 5-4 decision underscored a provision in a federal civil rights law that sets a 180-day deadline for employees to claim they are being paid less because of their race, sex, religion or national origin.
Without a deadline, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court, employers would find it difficult to defend against claims “arising from employment decisions that are long past.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent for the court’s liberal members, urged Congress to amend the law to correct the court’s “parsimonious reading” of it.
Lily Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s plant in Gadsden, Ala., said sex discrimination was behind a series of decisions that left her pay significantly below that of men who performed similar work.
After 19 years with Goodyear, Ledbetter was making $45,000 a year, $6,500 less than the lowest-paid male supervisor. The company said poor performance evaluations, not discrimination, were behind Ledbetter’s salary. She retired in 1998, shortly after claiming discrimination.
A jury sided with Ledbetter, but an appeals court overturned the verdict because she had waited too long to begin her lawsuit.
The Supreme Court agreed that workers who wait too long under the civil rights law are out of luck. Alito said that “the passage of time may seriously diminish the ability of the parties and the factfinder to reconstruct what actually happened.”
In this case, he said, one supervisor who Ledbetter claimed retaliated against her after she rejected his sexual advances died before the trial began.
Ledbetter said she didn’t sue earlier because employees are less willing to rock the boat when they are new on the job and have no reason to believe there could be such pay disparity.
The decision broke along ideological lines.
“This short deadline reflects Congress’ strong preference for the prompt resolution of employment discrimination allegations through voluntary conciliation and cooperation,” Alito wrote for the majority.
Ginsburg said in court Tuesday for the dissenters, “In our view, this court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” She noted that Ledbetter’s pay started out comparable to what men were earning but slipped over time.
Ginsburg said Ledbetter faced an impossible choice: sue early and probably lose a half-baked case, or wait until the evidence is strong enough to win and be told she sued too late. Siding with Ginsburg were justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens.
Debra Friedman, a lawyer with the Cozen O’Connor law firm who represents management, said Ginsburg put her finger on a problem for women and others who are covered by civil rights law. “Pay discrimination is difficult at times to discover until it’s too late,” Friedman said, though adding she believed the court correctly interpreted the law.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who once led the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sided with Goodyear. He and Alito were joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.
Five years ago, Thomas had joined his liberal colleagues in a 5-4 decision that made it easier for victims to complain about long-term job discrimination or harassment when shabby treatment was extended over a period of months or years.
The EEOC, which is responsible for investigating workplace discrimination claims, can try to persuade an employer to agree to changes without going to court. The agency also can file a lawsuit on an employee’s behalf or, as it did in Ledbetter’s case, issue a “right to sue” letter that gives an individual 90 days to sue a private employer.
The NAACP, AARP and other civil rights groups sided with Ledbetter, saying employers would not suffer any consequences for recurring discrimination if they could rebuff allegations merely by arguing that the deadline for complaining about the first episode had passed.
The decision “reveals a lack of appreciation for the real-world challenges that women have to face every day in the workplace,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “If employers can keep the discrimination hidden for a period of time, they can continue to discriminate without being held accountable.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business said a ruling for the worker would have subjected employers to damages for innocent decisions made years ago that would be difficult to defend because of the passage of time.
“This case is a matter of simple fairness. You just cannot sit on your claims and decide to file a lawsuit after things have festered over time,” said Robin Conrad, senior vice president of National Chamber Litigation Center.
After a trial, Ledbetter was initially awarded more than $3.8 million. A judge reduced the award to $360,000. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict.
Ledbetter also filed suit under another federal law, the Equal Pay Act. The judge dismissed that claim and Tuesday’s ruling does not affect pay inequity claims made under that law.
The case is Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 05-1074.
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