Overcoming The Supreme Court’s Cramped Ruling On Fair Pay

By:  Senator Patrick Leahy

(The U.S. Senate this week will try to overcome a filibuster on legislation to remedy a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that disallowed the discriminatory pay complaint filed by Goodyear Tire employee Lilly Ledbetter.  Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is a cosponsor of the bill.  Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.) 

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire struck a severe blow to the rights of working women.  More than 40 years ago, Congress acted to prevent discrimination in the workplace based on an employee’s sex, race, color, national origin or religion.  The Ledbetter decision is yet another example of the Supreme Court misinterpreting congressional intent and denying justice to a victim of discrimination.    

For nearly two decades, Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at Goodyear Tire, was paid significantly less than her male counterparts.  Nonetheless, a thin majority of justices on the Supreme Court found that she was ineligible for Title VII protection against discriminatory pay because she did not file her claim within 180 days of Goodyear’s repeatedly discriminatory pay decisions. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling sent the message to big companies that wage discrimination cannot be punished as long as it is kept under wraps.  At a time when one third of private sector employers have rules prohibiting employees from discussing their pay with each other, the Court’s decision ignores a reality of the workplace, that pay discrimination is often intentionally concealed. 

Ms. Ledbetter only found out that she was earning as much as $15,000 less each year than a male coworker with the same job and seniority when an anonymous letter appeared on her desk weeks before her retirement.  By the time she retired in 1997, despite receiving several performance-based awards, Ms. Ledbetter’s monthly salary was almost $600 less than the lowest paid male manager, and $1500 less than the highest paid male manager. 

Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to protect employees like Lilly Ledbetter from discrimination because of their sex, race, color, national origin or religion.  The Supreme Court’s cramped interpretation guts the purpose and intent of that bipartisan and historic effort to root out discrimination. 

Ms. Ledbetter argued that her claim fell within the 180-day window provided under Title VII for filing claims because she suffered continuing effects from her employer’s discrimination.  After filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal jury found that she was owed almost $225,000 in back pay.  Even so, five Justices of the Supreme Court overturned the jury’s decision, holding that Ms. Ledbetter was not protected under the law because she filed suit more than 180 days after her employer’s discriminatory pay decision.  

This Supreme Court decision contradicts both the spirit and clear intent of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which was created to protect workers against discriminatory pay.  The Court’s 5-4 decision undercuts enforcement against discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin.  In Justice Ginsburg’s dissent, she wrote that the Court’s decision “is totally at odds with the robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure.”

This October, Marcelle and I will host Vermont’s twelfth annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference, a chance for women to come together to learn new career skills.  Thousands of Vermont women have used these skills to advance their careers.  The Court’s Ledbetter decision – and the need for a bill like ours to fix it – is fresh evidence that despite years of hard work and achievement, women continue to suffer pay discrimination. 

I commend the Vermont Legislature for passing laws requiring equal pay for equal work and barring employers from retaliating against employees for disclosing the amount of their wages.  Unfortunately, not all states offer these protections.

For all of the gains that women have made in the past century, there remains a troubling constant:  Women continue to earn less than men – on average, only 77 cents on the dollar.  Discriminatory pay not only affects women; it also affects their children, their families and all of us who believe in the words inscribed on the Vermont marble of the Supreme Court building, “Equal Justice Under Law.” 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would correct the unfortunate and cramped ruling of the Supreme Court which denied Ms. Ledbetter equal justice.  It would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to clarify that an unlawful employment practice occurs not only when that discriminatory decision first goes into effect, but each time an individual is affected by it, such as each time compensation is paid. 

The House of Representatives passed this bill in a bipartisan vote last summer.  It also has bipartisan support in the Senate, but unfortunately some Republicans have objected to even considering the bill.  I hope their filibuster can be broken so that we can clarify that discrimination against hard-working men and women in their own workplaces is not the American way.  The law and our justice system should protect working people when it happens.  Our bill underscores this vital American principle against efforts to devalue it.   

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