President Again Makes False Claims about Supreme Court’s Ledbetter Decision

On April 15, President Obama once again made false claims about what the Supreme Court did in its decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), insinuating that the Court set a deadline for suing over pay discrimination that expires before many employees could possibly discover the discrimination.

He falsely claimed that the Supreme Court said it didn’t “matter” when Lilly Ledbetter learned of the pay disparity she unsuccessfully sued over, and that it ruled against her even though she explained that “I just found out” about the discrimination right before suing.

In reality, Ledbetter admitted in her deposition that she knew of the pay disparity years earlier. Yet she waited until long after the deadline to sue. The Supreme Court specifically said in footnote 10 of its decision that it had “no occasion” to consider whether Ledbetter could have sued had she only just found about the discrimination shortly before suing, since Ledbetter never argued to the courts that she had just discovered the discrimination. If she had just found about the discrimination, her lawyers would have argued that the “discovery rule” applied to restart the deadline for suing, making her lawsuit timely, but they never did so.

The Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision noted that the Supreme Court had “previously declined” to decide whether such a discovery rule applies in Title VII cases. But one federal appeals court had already extended the deadline for suing based on such a rule. And the Supreme Court had permitted a narrower exception to the deadline known as equitable tolling in its Zipes decision, showing that the Supreme Court does not rigidly apply the deadline to people who belatedly find out that they have been discriminated against.

Moreover, the Supreme Court also noted on the very first page of its opinion that Ledbetter might have had better luck had she simply sued under the right law. It noted that rather than just suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, she could have pressed her claim instead under a different law, the Equal Pay Act, a law that has a longer deadline for suing, a deadline that federal appeals courts had interpreted as starting anew each time a woman receives a paycheck set in a discriminatory fashion.

The president was echoing his false claims about the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2008 presidential campaign; in signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act on January 29, 2009; and during the October 16, 2012, presidential debate with Mitt Romney.

Here are the president’s full remarks at the town hall meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina:

So what we did when I came into office, we passed something called the Lilly Ledbetter Act, named after — (applause) — a good friend of mine, Lilly Ledbetter, who had worked for years and found out long into her work that she had been getting paid all these years less than men, substantially. She brought suit. They said, well, it's too late to file suit because you should have filed suit right when it started happening. She said, I just found out. They said, it doesn't matter. So we changed that law to allow somebody like Lilly, when they find out, to finally be able to go ahead and file suit.

But it is simply misleading to make it sound like the plaintiff in that case, Lilly Ledbetter, had been arbitrarily prevented by the Supreme Court from suing despite only recently learning of the pay discrimination around the time she retired. That was untrue. As I noted in The Washington Post:

In reality, Ledbetter knew for years that she was being paid less, as she made clear in her deposition. When she was asked, “So you knew in 1992 that you were being paid less than your peers?’ she answered, “Yes, sir.


[T]he Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. indicated that she did know. In footnote 10 of its ruling, the court pointed out that Ledbetter had not even claimed in court that she did not discover the discrimination until the deadline for suing had passed. As it explained, “We have previously declined to address whether Title VII suits are amenable to a discovery rule. . . . Because Ledbetter does not argue that such a rule would change the outcome in her case, we have no occasion to address this issue.” 

As legal commentator Stuart Taylor noted in May 2009 in National Journal,

Ledbetter admitted in her sworn deposition that “different people that I worked for along the way had always told me that my pay was extremely low” compared to her peers. She testified specifically that a superior had told her in 1992 that her pay was lower than that of other area managers, and that she had learned the amount of the difference by 1994 or 1995. She added that she had told her supervisor in 1995 that “I needed to earn an increase in pay” because “I wanted to get in line with where my peers were, because… at that time I knew definitely that they were all making a thousand [dollars] at least more per month than I was.”

For the relevant language from Ledbetter’s deposition that refutes the President’s claims, see the Joint Appendix filed in the Supreme Court by her lawyers and the opposing side’s lawyers at pg. 233, reprinting pg. 123 of Ledbetter's deposition.