Only fresh bias counts, court rules

Times Staff Writer

In a setback for employees who sue over job bias, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that they cannot rely on evidence from years past that shows they were unfairly paid less than their co-workers, even if this past discrimination continues to depress their salaries today.

Instead, employees must point to a “discrete act of discrimination” by their employer in the 180 days before they filed suit, the court held by a 5-4 vote.

By enforcing strict deadlines, the decision narrows the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination against employees because of their race, sex, religion or national origin.

It will also apply to the laws that bar discrimination against employees based on their age or disability.

Corporate lawyers called it a major victory for employers because it shields them from defending against discrimination claims from the past.


The ruling threw out a pay discrimination claim brought by a woman who for nearly 20 years was the lone female supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. Lilly Ledbetter sued the company in 1999 and showed she was being paid 15% to 40% less than the men who held the same job.

A jury sided with her and awarded her back pay of $224,000 and nearly $3.3 million in punitive damages.

But the company appealed, arguing she filed her claim too late, and it won a reversal from a U.S. appeals court in Atlanta.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with the company and said her suit should have been thrown out at the start because it relied on evidence of discrimination in the 1980s, not on unfair pay decisions in 1998 or 1999.

Ledbetter could not show that, because of her gender, she was denied a pay raise in those years. She did maintain, however, that her salary was unfairly low because of earlier discrimination.

That kind of old evidence does not suffice, said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., speaking for the majority.

Employees cannot rely on the “adverse effects resulting from past discrimination,” he said.

Alito said Congress set “quite short deadlines” when it passed the anti-discrimination law. They reflect “a strong preference for the prompt resolution” of disputes involving the workplace, he said.

“Ultimately, experience teaches that strict adherence to the procedural requirements ... is the best guarantee of evenhanded administration of justice,” Alito said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas agreed.

The liberal dissenters, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the decision ignored “the realities of the workplace.”

Most employees do not know what their co-workers earn, she said. And by the time they learn they have been shortchanged, it may be too late to sue, she said.

She urged Congress to “correct this court’s parsimonious reading” of the law.

Women’s rights group denounced the ruling and said it severely weakened the nation’s civil rights law. It “essentially says tough luck to employees who don’t immediately challenge their employers’ discriminatory acts,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center.

The National Federation of Independent Business welcomed the ruling, saying it will spare small-business owners “the burdensome task of defending themselves against an alleged discrimination claim that occurred years in the past.... We’re thrilled with the Ledbetter decision,” said Karen Harned, the group’s executive director.

Though the ruling arose in a woman’s case, its effect may be felt more among minorities and others claiming discrimination. They must rely on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its deadlines when they claim discrimination.

However, a separate federal law -- the Equal Pay Act of 1963 -- forbids paying women less than men for the same work, and legal experts said women could rely on this measure to sue over a long pattern of unfair pay.

Ledbetter did seek a claim under the Equal Pay Act, but a magistrate rejected it, saying her low pay was caused by poor performance.

But a judge then sent her Title VII claim to the jury, which ruled for her.

The ruling is the second this spring that appears to turn on the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and President Bush’s choice of Alito to replace her.

When Alito’s nomination came before the Senate, some women’s rights groups and civil rights advocates who opposed him contended he had consistently rejected workplace discrimination claims.

In April, the court upheld a ban on a disputed abortion method in a 5-4 decision, with Alito in the majority.

Earlier the court had struck down a similar ban by a 5-4 margin, with O’Connor in the majority.

It also marked the second time Ginsburg read a dissent from the bench. Civil rights law “was meant to govern real-world employment practices, and that world is what the court today ignores,” she said.

When employees are fired or denied a promotion, they know it, and they can sue then if they believe the decision was unfair, she said.

But salaries are different, she said. “Initially, you may not know that men are receiving more for substantially similar work,” Ginsburg said. And, under Monday’s ruling, by the time a female worker learns it, it will be too late to sue, she said.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer joined her dissent.