WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday limited workers’ ability to sue for pay discrimination, ruling against a Goodyear employee who earned thousands of dollars less than her male counterparts but waited too long to complain.
The 5-4 decision underscored a provision in a federal civil rights law that sets a 180-day deadline for employees to claim they are being paid less because of their race, sex, religion or national origin.
Without a deadline, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court, employers would find it difficult to defend against claims “arising from employment decisions that are long past.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent for the court’s liberal members, urged Congress to amend the law to correct the court’s “parsimonious reading” of it.
Lilly Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s plant in Gadsden, Ala., said sex discrimination was behind a series of decisions that left her pay significantly below that of men who performed similar work.
After 19 years with Goodyear, Ledbetter was making $45,000 a year, $6,500 less than the lowest-paid male supervisor. The company said poor performance evaluations, not discrimination, were behind Ledbetter’s salary. She retired in 1998, shortly after claiming discrimination.
A jury sided with Ledbetter, but an appeals court overturned the verdict because she had waited too long to begin her lawsuit.
The Supreme Court agreed that workers who wait too long under the civil rights law are out of luck. Alito said that “the passage of time may seriously diminish the ability of the parties and the fact-finder to reconstruct what actually happened.”
Ledbetter said she didn’t sue earlier because employees are less willing to rock the boat when they are new on the job and have no reason to believe there could be such pay disparity.
The decision broke along ideological lines.
“This short deadline reflects Congress’ strong preference for the prompt resolution of employment discrimination allegations through voluntary conciliation and cooperation,” Alito wrote for the majority.
Ginsburg said in court Tuesday for the dissenters: “In our view, this court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” She noted that Ledbetter’s pay started out comparable to what men were earning but slipped over time.