Congress should mend court's damage to bias law
The Supreme Court ruled that workers must act in a tight time frame to sue employers for discrimination in pay.
FOUR decades after Congress made discrimination in the workplace illegal, women continue to make less money than men, and the U.S. Supreme Court this week made it more difficult to prove discrimination. In a decision illuminating the high court's new makeup, a woman whose salary was kept below those of male colleagues doing the same job lost her attempt at redress. Congress must restore civil-rights protection.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women earned 81 percent of what men were paid in 2005. A new study by the American Association of University Women found that women in 1994, a year after earning their college degrees, made only 80 percent of what men were paid a year out of college. Ten years later, they made only 69 percent of what their male counterparts were paid.
Shortly after retiring, Lilly M. Ledbetter filed suit in 1998 maintaining discrimination during her 19 years as the only female supervisor at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Alabama. At that time, she was making $44,700 a year, while her male colleagues at the same management level drew incomes ranging from $51,400 to $62,800.
A federal magistrate rejected her claim under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, ruling that her lower wages were due to poor performance, although she earned a "Top Performance Award" in 1996. A jury sided with her claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, awarding her $224,000 in back pay and nearly $3.3 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the total award to $360,000.
However, the Supreme Court agreed with Goodyear and an appeals court that strictly interpreted a Title VII requirement that an employee make such a charge within 180 days "after the alleged employment practice occurred." The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had operated under a "paycheck accrual" policy that reset the clock back to when the discrimination began. The high court had approved the policy in a 1986 ruling.
That was then. Today's court includes the two men named to the panel by President Bush -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and, importantly, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both of whom voted with the conservative majority in the 5-4 vote. Alito replaced the retired Sandra Day O'Connor, who almost certainly would have voted in favor of Ledbetter.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissent, noted that Congress responded to the court's "cramped interpretation of Title VII" during the late 1980s by passing the 1991 Civil Rights Act. She urged that Congress similarly "act to correct this court's parsimonious reading of Title VII."
House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said he will work with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to do so. Such remedial action is needed for the law to reflect what Ginsburg called "the realities of the workplace."