WASHINGTON—Nov. 27 is the day the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a pay discrimination case involving a former employee of Goodyear´s Gadsden, Ala., facility.
The legal question presented in the suit is whether Lilly M. Ledbetter, who held various salaried, non-union supervisory positions at Gadsden between 1979 and 1998, had the right to cite her entire salary review history when she sued Goodyear under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for alleged pay discrimination. Normally under the statute, there is a 180-day limitations period legal action, meaning the lawsuit can cover only the plaintiff´s most recent salary review.
Ledbetter charged that, in her last salary reviews in the mid- and late 1990s, she earned 15 percent less than the next-lowest-paid manager in her work group. She claimed that she had been underpaid for her managerial positions essentially since she was first hired.
Goodyear, in its defense, said Ledbetter´s lower salary was based on her low performance ratings. Ledbetter, however, said her evaluations had been falsified, at least in part because one of those who reviewed her job performance was an immediate supervisor whose sexual advances she had rebuffed.
A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama awarded Ledbetter nearly $234,000 in back pay, almost $5,000 for mental anguish and nearly $3.3 million in punitive damages, though statutory maximums compelled the court to reduce the verdict to $360,000.
Goodyear appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that the limitations rule of Title VII meant that the trial court erred in allowing Ledbetter to present evidence from all her annual reviews.
In August 2005, the appeals court overturned the trial court. While there are some pay discrimination cases in which the Title VII limitations don´t apply, the court ruled, the lower court erred in declaring the Ledbetter case one of them.
"It is one thing to say that a claim is not entirely time-barred because the discriminatory decision being challenged continued to be periodically implemented through paychecks issued within the limitations period," the appeals court ruled. "It is quite another to say that the bare issuance of a lower-than-wished-for paycheck within the limitations period opens the door for a full inquiry into the motivations of every person who ever made a decision contributing to the plaintiff´s pay level."
Ledbetter appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2006, and in June the high court agreed to hear the case.
In a brief submitted to the Supreme Court Sept. 7, Ledbetter´s attorneys said the appeals court´s decision abrogated the basic purpose of Title VII.
"Under the court of appeals´ rule, an employee is condemned to perpetually unequal pay for equal work unless she recognizes and complains about the discrimination within a few short months after it first begins," they wrote.
Goodyear will file its responding brief with the court Oct. 23, according to Glen Nager, a Washington attorney representing the tire maker.