Supreme Court Routs Title VII in 2007: Goodyear Wins Right to Discriminate Based on Gender

Employment attorneys seem to agree that the most controversial decision in 2007 was the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Let’s review what happened:

In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter began working as a supervisor at Goodyear’s tire assembly department in Gadsden, Alabama. During her first weeks of employment, her wages were identical to those of her male counterparts. Twenty years later, a rift in pay between Ms. Ledbetter and her male colleagues had become painstakingly clear.

In 1998, Ms. Ledbetter received an anonymous letter, which revealed that she made about $15,000 less than her male co-workers at Goodyear. Inexplicably, Ms. Ledbetter’s pay was not even on par with recent hires with far less job experience. Ms. Ledbetter filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission less than a month after receiving the anonymous tip. At trial, her attorneys highlighted the disparity in pay between males and females doing the same work at the Gadsen Goodyear plant. The jury ultimately sided with Ms. Ledbetter, awarding her over $3.5 million in damages, which the district judge later reduced down to $360,000.

Title VII requires discrimination complaints to be made within 180 days of the employer’s discriminatory conduct. Goodyear appealed, arguing that the jury should not have considered each of the annual salary reviews that Ms. Ledbetter had received throughout her 20 year career with Goodyear. Citing Title VII, Goodyear maintained that the jury should only have evaluated the lone annual salary review that Ms. Ledbetter received in the 180 day limitations period before Ms. Ledbetter filed her complaint, despite the fact that the pay disparity had occurred over nearly two decades.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in part, agreed with Goodyear’s argument and held that the jury should have not have been allowed to evaluate Goodyear’s discriminatory pay decisions over Ms. Ledbetter’s entire career in light of Title VII’s 180 day limitations period. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit ignored the vital fact that Ms. Ledbetter had not learned of the pay disparity until 1998.
Determined to seek redress, Ms. Ledbetter appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari. In a 5 – 4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Ledbetter’s claim was time-barred by Title VII’s 180 day limitations period. In a scathing dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the majority’s ruling “a cramped interpretation of Title VII, incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose” and suggested that “the Legislature may act to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter provides a sobering example of how quickly years of progress can unravel through “cramped interpretations” and “parsimonious readings” of statutes designed to ensure equality across genders.

In response to the outrage surrounding the Ledbetter decision, a bipartisan bill called the Fair Pay Restoration Act (S. 1843) has emerged in the Senate. Among others, the bill is supported by Senators Kennedy (D-MA), Snowe (R-ME), and Specter (R-PA). Click here to urge your Senator to support the Fair Pay Restoration Act.