- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Lilly Ledbetter earned thousands of dollars less than the men she worked with at Goodyear. She went to court, proved her discrimination case and won $3.8 million from a jury.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court said she could collect nothing. In a 5-4 decision limiting workers’ ability to sue for pay discrimination, the court said Ms. Ledbetter waited too long to complain.

The ruling drew a blistering dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said the court majority “does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”

The 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 A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court, employers would find it difficult to defend against claims “arising from employment decisions that are long past.”

Justice Ginsburg, joined by the other liberal justices, urged Congress to amend the law to correct the court’s “parsimonious reading” of it.

Ms. Ledbetter was a longtime supervisor at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s plant in Gadsden, Ala. She 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, Ms. 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 Ms. Ledbetter’s salary. She retired in 1998, shortly after claiming discrimination.

A jury sided with Ms. Ledbetter, but an appeals court overturned the verdict because she had waited too long to sue.

The Supreme Court agreed that workers who wait too long under the civil rights law are out of luck. Justice 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 Ms. Ledbetter claimed retaliated against her after she rejected his sexual advances died before the trial began. Ms. 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,” Justice Alito wrote for the majority.

Justice Ginsburg noted that Ms. Ledbetter’s pay started out comparable to what men were earning but slipped over time.

The justice said Ms. 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 Justice Ginsburg were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens.

Debra Friedman, a lawyer with the Cozen O’Connor law firm who represents management, said Justice 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,” Ms. Friedman said, though adding she believed the court correctly interpreted the law.

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