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The Supreme Court on Tuesday made it significantly easier for employers to defend against Title VII workplace discrimination claims that are based on long-ago decisions about salary and raises. By a 5-4 vote, the Court said that employees claiming they received disparate treatment based on gender or race must do so within 180 days of the original discriminatory action — not within 180 days of their last paycheck. The decision came in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., brought by Lilly Ledbetter, a manager at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala. She claimed that she was paid 15 percent to 40 percent less than her male counterparts, but the company successfully countered that her complaint was filed too late in relation to the employment decisions affecting her pay. Business groups applauded the ruling, which spares them from having to defend against “stale” claims involving decisions that are difficult to document, made by supervisors who may no longer work at the company. “We are thrilled with the Ledbetter decision,” Karen Harned, the National Federation of Independent Business Legal Foundation executive director, said in a statement released Tuesday. “Allowing an employee to wait years before they file a disparate pay claim is simply unfair to the defendant business.” But lawyers for employees said the ruling will make it difficult to combat often subtle pay decisions and may encourage workers to “complain early and complain often” to beat the deadline. “That, ultimately, will not serve well the interests of anyone, employers and the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] included,” said Kevin Russell of D.C.’s Howe & Russell, who represented Ledbetter before the Court. After Ledbetter filed suit in 1999 in federal court for the northern district of Alabama, a jury found that she was discriminated against, and that the impact of early pay decisions by the company — she was hired in 1979 — affected her until the time she filed initially with the EEOC. She was awarded $223,000 in back pay and more than $3 million in punitive damages. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the jury determination, finding that no employment decision with discriminatory intent occurred within 180 days before she filed her claim. The Supreme Court agreed and ruled that Ledbetter’s claim was time-barred. “The EEOC charging period is triggered when a discrete unlawful practice takes place,” Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote for the majority. “A new violation does not occur, and a new charging period does not commence, upon the occurrence of subsequent nondiscriminatory acts that entail adverse effects resulting from the past discrimination.” Alito said the narrower reading of the deadline was compelled by Court precedents and by Congress itself, which wanted discrimination claims to be handled quickly. Debra Friedman, a lawyer in the labor and employment practice group at Cozen O’Connor, says a decision in favor of Ledbetter “would have opened a can of worms” that would have made pay claims costly and onerous for employers to handle. “Now employers can focus on assuring that current pay practices are nondiscriminatory.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author of the dissent, underscored her displeasure with the ruling by reading her dissent from the bench. “The Court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg said. She explained that early in a woman’s employment at a company, she may not even be aware of the salaries of others, and “understandably may be anxious to avoid making waves.” Often, as in Ledbetter’s case, Ginsburg said a woman’s salary can slip gradually in comparison to men’s, so that a substantial gap might become apparent only years after the original discriminatory decision was made. “Only over time is there strong cause to suspect that discrimination is at work,” Ginsburg said. The Court’s only female justice noted that in 1991, Congress responded to several Supreme Court decisions that gage a cramped reading of Title VII by enacting a law in effect overturning those interpretations. “Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court,” Ginsburg said. “As in 1991, the legislature has cause to note and correct the Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.” Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg’s dissent. Tuesday’s ruling may have also disappointed civil rights advocates for a less direct and more speculative reason. With Alito having written the Ledbetter decision, the only case remaining from the late November, early December cycle of oral arguments at the Court is the consolidated disputes from Seattle and Louisville involving the use of race in public school class assignments. And since Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., like his predecessor, tries to spread the work around evenly, it seems likely — though not certain — that the majority opinion on the race issue will be written by the only justice who has not written an opinion from that cycle: Roberts himself. During oral arguments Dec. 4, Roberts was viewed as generally hostile to the argument that using race is still necessary to combat segregation in public schools.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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