High Court Sets Limits On Sex Discrimination Suits

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The nation's high court rules that workers who sue their employers for sex discrimination must do so promptly. The case stems from an employer who argued that the decision to pay a female employee less than her male counterparts was made years earlier. The justices agreed, setting a statute of limitations.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Having lost at the Supreme Court, civil rights groups say they will try Congress next. That was their response after the high court limited the rights of employees to file pay discrimination suits. The ruling came in the case of a woman who discovered that for years male co-workers who did similar jobs were paid more than she was.

By a 5-4 vote the court ruled against her. It said the Civil Rights Act prevents her from bringing a suit based on sex discrimination. Here's why: the law said she had to file her complaint within 180 days of the company's decision to pay different salaries.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Lily Ledbetter worked as a supervisor for the Goodyear Tire Company in Gaston, Alabama for 19 years, never knowing for sure whether she suspected she was paid less than her male counterparts. She finally learned the truth in 1998, when she was sent anonymously a list of supervisor salaries that showed she earned $6,000 less a year than the lowest paid man. She took early retirement and sued for illegal gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

Ms. LILY LEDBETTER (Plaintiff): It's affected not only my livelihood, what I did for my family during those years, but it's affected my retirement and my Social Security which I draw, because my retirement was based on the amount of money that I earned, and so is my Social Security. And all of that is much, much less than what the men are drawing because I wasn't paid according to what they were.

TOTENBERG: A jury ruled in Ledbetter's favor and she was awarded $360,000 in back pay and damages. But yesterday the Supreme Court by a 5-to-4 vote overturned the jury's verdict. Noting that the Civil Rights Act imposes a 180-day deadline on most claims, the court said that an employee is not entitled to recover for anything that occurs before that cut-off.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that by setting the 180-day deadline, Congress clearly meant to protect businesses from having to defend themselves against stale claims of discrimination that are long passed.

Joining Alito and the majority were Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas. The dissenters, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noted that it often takes years for employees to figure out pay disparities, and even small disparities when piled on each other year after year can add up to large sums overtime.

Congress understood that, the dissenters contended, and never intended the 180-day deadline to prevent claims based on an accumulated wrong. In blunt terms, Ginsburg said it's now up to Congress to fix the statute if it doesn't like the court's interpretation.

Wade Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that given the addition of Justice Alito to the court after the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, yesterday's ruling was a not unexpected disappointment.

Mr. WADE HENDERSON (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights): There is a silver lining. The problem of statutory construction can be remedied. And I think the civil rights community is going to be pressing aggressively to have Congress fix the problem.

TOTENBERG: Robin Conrad, general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the business community sees no need to change the existing law.

Ms. ROBIN CONRAD (General Counsel, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): I think the balance and the fairness occurred a long time ago. I don't think any tweaking here would be at all fair.

TOTENBERG: Civil rights leaders point to 1991 as their model. That year Congress, by large bi-partisan majorities, passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which reversed a bunch of Supreme Court decisions handed down by a court with a then-new conservative majority. This time, though, could be different, with business pushing back and Congress more closely divided.

The new conservative majority was so unfazed about that possibility yesterday that for the first time in 15 years a majority opinion cited as precedent one of those Supreme Court decisions reversed by the 1991 Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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