White House Distorts Ledbetter v. Goodyear Ruling, in Backing Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

The White House is making false claims about the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision. In that case, the Supreme Court enforced the 180-day deadline for bringing pay discrimination claims contained in the federal discrimination law with the shortest deadline, Title VII. (Other laws, like the Equal Pay Act, have much longer deadlines, like 3 years).

The White House claims that “The Court ruled that employees subject to pay discrimination like Lilly Ledbetter must file a claim within 180 days of the employer’s original decision to pay them less . . . even if the employee did not discover the discriminatory reduction in pay until much later (check out Justice Alito’s arguments in the Court’s opinion).”

This is misleading, and perhaps knowingly so, since the White House links to the very court decision it distorts. First, the Court never said there was a rigid deadline that bars claims by employees who “did not discover” discrimination “until much later.” Ledbetter never argued that the deadline should be suspended based on her employer concealing discrimination against her, because she in fact knew for years about the pay disparity she later sued over. If she truly had been in the dark about the alleged discrimination, she could have sought to take advantage of exceptions to the deadline that suspend it, like waiver, estoppel, and equitable tolling, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, 451 U.S. 385, 398 (1982). But she never made that argument, because, as she testified in her deposition, she had been told many years earlier that she was being paid less than the men she later claimed ought to have been paid the same as her.

Nor did she argue that the outcome of her case would have been changed if the Supreme Court recognized an even broader extension to the deadline for employees who are unaware of the discrimination against them, the so-called discovery rule. As the Supreme Court specifically noted in footnote 10 of its opinion, “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.” In short, since Ledbetter had long known of the facts underlying her discrimination claim, relaxing the deadline for employees who “did not discover” the discrimination until much later would have done her no good.

Thus, it is wrong for the White House to suggest that the Supreme Court sought to bar claims irrespective of whether “the employee did not discover the discriminatory reduction in pay until much later.”

Second, the Supreme Court expressly noted that the plaintiff could have pressed her claim instead under the Equal Pay Act, which has a longer deadline for suing (usually 3 years) and perhaps more generous accrual rules. But her lawyer foolishly failed to preserve that claim, which was a mistake, as he admitted to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court responded by noting that “Petitioner, having abandoned her claim under the Equal Pay Act, asks us to deviate from our prior decisions in order to permit her to assert her claim under Title VII.”

The Obama campaign and state democratic parties spent much of the 2008 election season attacking the Supreme Court for supposedly creating a rigid 180-day deadline for pay discrimination claims. Those claims were false.

The fact that the Supreme Court rejected Ledbetter’s claim as untimely should not have been a shock to anyone, given that she waited until shortly before she retired to sue, after the supervisor she accused of discrimination had died.