WASHINGTON—A former Goodyear employee´s complaint that she was underpaid because of her sex is the basis of a court case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue in the suit brought by Lilly M. Ledbetter is whether the statute of limitations in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars Ledbetter´s claims over ongoing gender-based pay inequities.
During the Nov. 27 Supreme Court oral argument, Glen D. Nager, Goodyear´s attorney, stated that any pay discrimination claim that isn´t made within the statutory limit of 180 days after a pay review cannot be allowed under the law.
However, Ledbetter´s attorney, Kevin K. Russell, argued that each paycheck she received after the initial discriminatory pay decision constituted a fresh violation of the law. Ledbetter´s case was like others, he said, in that she wasn´t even aware she had received a lower pay raise than her male cohorts until after the 180 days had passed.
Ledbetter was employed at Goodyear´s Gadsden, Ala., facility from 1979 to 1998, working first as a production supervisor and later in the then-newly created position of area manager. In the latter year, she filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming discrimination in her pay compared with male employees at Gadsden.
Among other things, Ledbetter alleged that the company falsified her performance evaluations and that one of her evaluators was a supervisor whose sexual advances she had earlier rebuffed.
A jury before the Northern Alabama federal district court decided for Ledbetter and awarded her more than $3.5 million in back pay and punitive damages, though the trial judge reduced the award to $360,000. Goodyear appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on the basis of the 180-day statute of limitations. The appeals court agreed that Goodyear´s most recent pay decisions were not intentionally discriminatory and reversed the lower court.
In any merit pay system, Russell argued before the court, it is to be expected that there will be a certain level of pay variation that works itself out over time.
"It´s only when it doesn´t, when the disparity persists...that the employee has some reasonable basis to think that it´s not natural variation in the pay decisions but actually intentional discrimination," he said.
After the passage of Title VII, all employers had an acknowledged duty to end all discriminatory pay practices, Nager said. But in previous pay discrimination cases, "what this court has said repeatedly is when the charge filing period passes and no charge is brought, the employer is entitled to treat that past act as if it were a lawful act," he said. Otherwise, he added, every employer in the U.S. would be forced to evaluate constantly every individual pay review decision.
The nine justices demonstrated little partisanship, but asked tough questions of both Russell and Nager. Some of their sharpest questioning was reserved for Irving L. Gornstein, a Justice Department attorney presenting the Bush administration´s supporting brief for Goodyear.
Justices Antonin Scalia, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all noted that while the Justice Department filed an amicus brief on Goodyear´s behalf, the EEOC sides with Ledbetter.
"Why should we listen to the Solicitor General rather than the EEOC?" Scalia asked Gornstein.
There is no set timetable for the Supreme Court to issue its opinion in this case. Generally, the high court issues opinions on most, if not all, cases it hears during its annual session before its adjournment, which usually occurs around the beginning of July.