A former tire plant worker's complaint that she was paid thousands of dollars less than men in the same job made it to the Supreme Court on Monday in a case that could affect pay discrimination claims nationwide.
The justices engaged in a lively but inconclusive debate over how to apply the 180-day deadline for complaining about discriminatory pay decisions under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lilly Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., claiming that after 19 years at the company's Gadsden, Ala., plant, she was making $6,000 a year less than the lowest-paid man in the same job.
Ledbetter claimed the disparity existed for years and was primarily a result of her gender. A jury agreed, but an appeals court overturned the verdict.
Enforce the statute of limitations strictly and an employee is "condemned to perpetually unequal pay for equal work unless she recognizes and complains about the discrimination within a few short months after it first begins," Kevin Russell, Ledbetter's lawyer, argued to the court.
Each smaller paycheck should be treated as a new act of discrimination, Russell said.
Allow employees to reach back years to claim discrimination and the deadlines mean nothing, lawyers for Goodyear and the Bush administration said.
"No one at Goodyear took Miss Ledbetter's sex into account during the charge-filing period in deciding what to pay her," said Glen Nager, Goodyear's attorney.
Applying the 180-day deadline to decisions made years ago makes no sense in a situation in which the disparity grew over time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. Early on, "there is no reason to think there is going to be this inequality," she argued.
But Chief Justice John Roberts was skeptical that employees should be allowed to challenge decisions made years ago.
Justice Clarence Thomas could play a pivotal role in deciding the case. In the 1980s, Thomas was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for investigating workplace discrimination claims.
One of the court's most conservative justices, Thomas was joined by his four liberal colleagues in a 5-4 decision in 2002 that made it easier for victims to complain about long-term job discrimination or harassment when shabby treatment is extended over a period of months or years.
In Ledbetter's case, the EEOC said her claims could go forward. She was initially awarded more than $3.8-million. A judge reduced the award to $360,000.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict on the basis of the deadline.
A ruling in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is expected before July.
Cases the court turned down Monday:
- The case of a Florida man seeking to reduce his sentence for smuggling immigrants and other crimes.
- A request by Florida to consider whether using a police dog to sniff for marijuana from the front door of a residence is an illegal search.
- An appeal in a class-action lawsuit seeking to reinstate a $10.1-billion verdict against Philip Morris USA over its "light" cigarettes.
- A request to block the government from reviewing telephone records of two New York Times reporters in a leak investigation.
- A challenge to a Maine law that bars the use of public funds to send students to private religious schools.
- A lawsuit against Salt Lake City brought by the widow of a former suspect in the abduction of Elizabeth Smart.
- An asylum seeker found to have engaged in terrorist activities in Northern Ireland.
- A case in which a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated law professor wants the government to expunge his FBI file.
- A dispute in which Michigan officials were trying to tax the land of the Keweenaw Bay Indian community.
- A case in which an American Indian tribe challenges the authority of Rhode Island officials to enforce a state law on its reservation. The dispute over the tribe's decision not to pay for tax stamps stemmed from a police raid on a tribal smoke shop.
- The Delaware Nation Indian tribe's effort to recover 315 acres of Pennsylvania land that were lost in the 1737 "Walking Purchase" land deal.
- A challenge by Illinois to a state appeals court decision that a police officer did not have reasonable suspicion when asking a driver's permission to search his car during a routine traffic stop.