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Amy Traub

Supreme Court: Decades of discrimination don’t matter after the first six months

By now you might have heard about Lilly Ledbetter. An employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for 19 years, Ledbetter discovered that she was being paid far less than male employees with less seniority doing the same job. She sued and won $3 million in back pay and damages. Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled against that decision, saying Ledbetter hadn't acted within the narrow permissible window of time, and so was due no compensation for her employers' years of illegal discriminatory conduct.

This is more than a women's issue, or even just a discrimination issue. It's also an issue of workplace rights more broadly and a case with something important to say about ordinary Americans' access to justice.

According to the Court's 5-4 majority, even though Ledbetter had suffered for years from the effects of pay discrimination, and was still suffering at the time when she sued, her complaint was illegitimate because more than 180 days had passed since the initial pay decision was made. Never mind if she wasn't aware until that point that Goodyear was illegally discriminating against her for being a woman. Never mind that many employees don't know how much their co-workers are being paid at the time pay decisions are made, and may not realize they are victims of even the most vicious discrimination until years later. If you don't sue within the first 180 days, the Court ruled, your employer is essentially immune from being held accountable for their illegal actions, even if paychecks reflecting discriminatory decisions continue for decades.

I'll leave it to legal experts not to mention the four dissenting Supreme Court Justices to parse the legal intricacies of the decision. What worries me is the Court's apparent eagerness to place technical obstructions in the path of people seeking redress for injustice, in effect making it harder to enforce the laws meant to protect us.

Thankfully, Congress is acting to "fix" the law so that employers won't have impunity from for pay discrimination after 180 days.

But I'm with my long-time hero Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, in her powerful dissent, rebuked the Supreme Court's majority for ignoring the real world. Where's the fix for that?

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Posted at 3:20 PM, Jun 01, 2007 in Civil Justice | Employment | Racial Justice
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