High Court Limits Discrimination Cases

A Supreme Court ruling Tuesday limits workers' ability to sue employers for pay discrimination that results from decisions made years earlier. The decision says employers would otherwise find it difficult to defend against claims "arising from employment decisions that are long past."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we're going to begin this hour with the ruling from the Supreme Court dealing with discrimination in the workplace.

Voting five to four, the justices barred employees from recovering back pay and damages if their discrimination claims go back longer than six months. The ruling, under the Civil Rights Act, applies to workers who claim they are paid less because of their gender race or religion.

Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Today's ruling came in the case of Lilly Ledbetter who worked for 19 years as a manager for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama. In March of 1998, after, she says, the company told her her position was being changed to one that required her to lift heavy tires, she took early retirement and sued for discrimination in her pay. She says that as the only female area supervisor, she'd long suspected that she was paid less but didn't know for sure.

Ms. LILLY LEDBETTER (Former Manager, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company): And I did not want to make waves. I wanted to be known as a team player and be part of the team but they just wouldn't let me.

TOTENBERG: Ledbetter said she only learned for sure about the disparity in pay at the time of her lawsuit, when she received an anonymous list of salaries and found that she was earning $6,000 a year less than the lowest paid man doing the same work.

The Civil Rights Act puts a deadline on most claims for employment discrimination. A worker is not entitled to recover for anything that occurs before that cutoff. But Ledbetter contended that the deadline does not apply in cases like hers where there is an accumulated wrong and the employee may not have know she was the victim of pay discrimination. A jury ruled in her favor and she was awarded $360,000 in back pay and damages.

Today though, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a five to four vote, voided that award. Riding for the court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that Congress clearly set the deadline at 180 days in order to protect businesses from having to defend themselves against stale claims of discrimination that are long past. Joining Alito in the majority were Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an unusual oral defense from the bench this morning, noted that pay disparities like Ledbetter's often occur in small increments and overtime. Employers do not make comparative salaries available to workers and by the time an employee realizes she's the victim of real discrimination in pay, the deadline for filing a claim is long past.

Such pay discrimination swells in significance overtime and with each paycheck, say Ginsburg. But, she added, under today's court ruling, every pay decision not promptly challenged wipes the slate clean for the employer thus providing an incentive for the employer to hide pay disparities. Joining her in descent were Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer.

Reaction to the ruling was predictable, with business groups hailing it and civil rights groups bemoaning it. Robin Conrad is general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. ROBIN CONRAD (General Counsel, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): When Congress imposed or required 180-day time period for filing claims, its rationale was to clear up disputes as quickly as possible before they fester overtime. And that's exactly what happened in this case. It festered overtime.

TOTENBERG: Debra Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Ms. DEBRA NESS (President, National Partnership for Women and Families): We need Congress to ensure that his law isn't an empty promise.

TOTENBERG: Civil rights groups said they would now go to Congress to have this and other recent civil rights rulings overturned. But with both the House and Senate closely divided, that could prove difficult.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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