By: Dina Lassow, Senior CounselPosted on June 13, 2007 Issues: Judges Workplace Justice

by Dina Lassow

As we’ve previously discussed, on May 29, 2007, the Supreme Court issued a decision that severely weakens remedies for employees who have faced pay discrimination.  The case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., was decided 5-4, with Justice Alito writing the decision.  Justice Ginsburg took the unusual step of announcing her strong dissent in the courtroom.

Lilly Ledbetter, one of the very few women supervisors at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, had faced sexual harassment at the plant, and her boss had told her that he didn’t think a woman should be working in a tire plant.  She suspected that she was getting fewer and lower pay raises than the male supervisors.  But, Goodyear did not allow its employees to discuss their pay, and Ms. Ledbetter had no proof until she received an anonymous note with the salaries of three of the male managers.  Then she filed a complaint with the EEOC.  Her case went to trial, and the jury awarded her backpay, about $4,700 for mental anguish and over $3 million in punitive damages.  Because of limits on damages in Title VII, the court had to cut her damages to about $360,000.  But, the Supreme Court took even those damages away, holding that she had filed her case too long after the company unlawfully decided to pay her less—even though Ledbetter continued to receive discriminatorily low paychecks because of the earlier decisions.

The good news is that the Supreme Court’s decision was based on its interpretation of Title VII—meaning that Congress can tell the Court that it got it wrong.

Members of Congress including Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, and George Miller, the Chairman of the House Committee on Labor and Education, announced at a press conference on Tuesday, June 12th that they will try to do just that.  Immediately after the press conference, the House Committee on Labor and Education held hearings on the implications of the Ledbetter decision. 

Lilly Ledbetter herself testified at the hearing, and did a great job telling Congress what life is really like for a woman working in a tire plant, and why she couldn’t have gone to the EEOC earlier than she did.  The Committee also heard from Deborah Brake, who used to be with NWLC, and is now a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and from Wade Henderson, the President and CEO of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. Both of them told the Committee how harmful the Ledbetter decision is for employees who face pay discrimination.  A representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that the decision provided important protection for employers against employees who know about discrimination, but sneakily wait to sue until key witnesses against them are no longer available.  His view of the workplace is as far removed reality as that of the majority of the Supreme Court.

Hopefully, legislation will be introduced soon to overturn the Ledbetter decision.  We’ll let you know!

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