In signing his first bill into law, Obama didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story, or milking a political wedge issue. He falsely claimed that Lilly Ledbetter, whose pay discrimination claim was dismissed by the Supreme Court as untimely, worked at Goodyear “for nearly two decades before discovering that for years, she was paid less than her male colleagues for doing the very same work.” Actually, Ledbetter knew by 1992, if not earlier, that she was being paid less than the male employees she claimed should have been paid the same as her. Small wonder that the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear dismissed her claim as untimely. (She brought the claim after the supervisor she accused of discrimination had died, and shortly before she retired).
Ledbetter now claims to the contrary, but she admitted under oath in her deposition that she knew for years of the wage disparity she now claims was discriminatory. If she really hadn’t been able to discover the discrimination in time to meet the deadline, her lawyers would have cited that fact to take advantage of exceptions to the deadline for hoodwinked employees (known as equitable tolling or estoppel). But as the Supreme Court noted in footnote 10 of its decision, even broadening those existing exceptions to the deadline further for her benefit would have done her no good, since her discovery of the wage disparity had occurred long ago.
Many lawyers, like leading employment lawyer David Copus and prominent Washington lawyer Paul Mirengoff, have quoted from Ledbetter’s deposition testimony admitting she knew of the wage disparity. See, e.g., David Copus, “Pay Discrimination Claims After Ledbetter,” Defense Counsel Journal, Volume 75, page 300 (Oct. 1, 2008).
Mirengoff has chided Obama and the White House for telling tall tales about the Ledbetter case, both recently and in the past. So have we and many other commentators. But the President made the same false claims yet again in his remarks today at the Oval Office signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. That law will functionally eliminate the deadline for bringing most pay discrimination claims, by restarting the deadline for suing each time an employee receives a paycheck or pension benefit allegedly influenced by past discrimination.
During the 2008 election campaign, both Obama and state democratic parties made similar false claims about the Ledbetter case, in order to use it as a political wedge issue.
The White House has also made false statements about how much time employees have to sue over pay discrimination.