The court today handed down a ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.. With Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito making up a majority, the Court held 5-4 that pay raises made outside of the statute of limitations were not protected under the Civil Rights Act. The decision makes it easier for employers to defend against pay discrimination cases.

Petitioner Ledbetter is accusing Goodyear of pay discrimination based on years of sex-based discrimination. She filed suit in mid-1998, rendering the standard statute of limitations applicable only to the 180 days prior to her filing suit. She claims that because of the unique nature of pay increases, she is still being harmed for pay increases that she filed to receive years ago.

Justice Alito penned a decision that rules on reasonably narrow grounds. Unlike the Carhart abortion decision and a few others the court has handed down this term, the majority in Ledbetter opts to rule on relatively narrow grounds. The court rejected Ledbetter’s claim to give pay discrimination suits exemption from standard Title VII statute of limitations. The court upheld the decision of a lower court to look at discrimination only in the 180 days that preceded her suit and found no evidence of discrimination in the two pay-related events that fell in that time period.

Justice Ginsburg filed a strong dissent that can be summed up in a few short excerpts:

The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time.

The realities of the workplace reveal why the discrimination with respect to compensation that Ledbetter suffered does not fit within the category of singular discrete acts “easy to identify.” A worker knows immediately if she is denied a promotion or transfer, if she is fired or refused employment. And promotions, transfers, hirings, and firings are generally public events, known to co-workers. When an employer makes a decision of such open and definitive character, an employee can immediately seek out an explanation and evaluate it for pretext. Compensation disparities, in contrast, are often hidden from sight.

The problem of concealed pay discrimination is particularly acute where the disparity arises not because the female employee is flatly denied a raise, but because male counterparts are given larger raises.

Ginsburg is also concerned that this ruling wish give companies an incentive to hide information about pay disparities.

I tend to agree with Justice Ginsburg primarily for the reasons she listed but also for a few others. The idea of a ‘statute of limitations’ is to limit abuses in the law from people filing suit long after a harm is done. They are designed to prevent people from being harmed and using the threat of litigation as a way of bettering themselves in a way that they dont need. If we dont know for a fact (as is the case here), the court needs to err on the side of caution and assume that Ledbetter was actually harmed by her company and had no legitimate way of knowing that she had been discriminated against until long after the initial discrimination occurred.

Update: I found a great audio clip on the case here. Apparently you can hear Justice Ginsburg reading part of the opinion as Justices sometimes do when they are especially vehement about a decision, but I couldn’t find the link. On a related note: I love NPR.

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