WASHINGTON — In a 5-4 decision that emphasized a sharp ideological split within the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court ruled a former Goodyear employee could not sue the company because of alleged pay discrimination.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, ruled May 29 that the discrimination complaint of Lilly M. Ledbetter, a retired supervisor at Goodyear´s Gadsden, Ala. plant, was invalid because it wasn´t filed within the 180 days allowed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Furthermore, Ledbetter´s claim that each salary review she received compounded the original discriminatory act was not supported by legal precedent, according to Alito.
In a dissent read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg essentially accused the majority of putting the narrow letter of the law above its spirit.
According to the majority, "knowingly carrying past pay discrimination forward must be treated as lawful conduct," Ginsburg said. "The court´s approbation of these consequences is totally at odds with the robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure."
Goodyear and other business interests applauded the decision, while labor and women´s rights advocates condemned it.
"Goodyear is gratified the court agreed with our position in Ms. Ledbetter´s appeal that a timely report of a concern about discrimination is essential to achieving the purposes of Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws," the company said in a statement.
Joining Goodyear in approval of the decision were the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Allowing an employee to wait years before they file a disparate pay claim is simply unfair to the defendant business," said Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB Legal Foundation, in a press release. "As time goes by, employees come and go and evidence of any event becomes increasingly more difficult to produce."
The National Women´s Law Center deplored the decision.
"The court´s decision is a setback for women and a setback for civil rights," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the center. "By a one-vote margin, this court has put at risk women´s ability to combat the wage discrimination to which they are far too frequently subject."
"In general, this is a decision that employers will be happy about, and employees won´t be happy about," said Kevin K. Russell, Ledbetter´s attorney.
Ledbetter worked in various salaried, nonunion supervisory positions at Gadsden from 1979 until she retired in 1998. The year before she retired, Ginsburg noted in her dissent, Ledbetter was the only woman out of 16 area managers at the plant. Ledbetter earned $3,727 a month, some 15 percent less than the $4,286 a month earned by the next lowest-paid area manager.
In her lawsuit, Ledbetter invoked Title VII to claim she had been the victim of discrimination in her earliest salary reviews at the plant. Goodyear argued that Ledbetter´s lower pay was based on low early performance ratings, not gender. Ledbetter, however, countered that her job reviews had been falsified, partly 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 minimums compelled the court to reduce the verdict to $360,000.
Goodyear appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming Ledbetter should not have been allowed to present evidence from all her annual reviews because of the 180-day clause of Title VII. The appeals court agreed, and overturned the lower court.
In his ruling, Alito asserted that decisions in previous similar cases and the strict construction of Title VII were entirely on Goodyear´s side.
"Ledbetter´s policy arguments for giving special treatment to pay claims find no support in the statute and are inconsistent with our precedents," he said.
Ginsburg, however, said Alito´s decision overlooked the basic nature of pay discrimination.
"Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter´s case, in small increments," she said. "Cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee´s view."