In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month. In recognition of this, we are taking a look back at the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Act arose out of a Supreme Court case.
Lilly Ledbetter was an employee at the Goodyear Plant in Gadsden, Alabama. Upon receiving an anonymous note revealing the salaries of her three male co-managers, she filed a complaint with the EEOC. She had previously been the victim of sexual harassment at her workplace and had been told by her boss that he didn’t think a woman should be working at the plant. Her case went to trial and the jury awarded her back-pay, as well as millions in compensatory and punitive damages for the discrimination she had faced.
The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the jury’s verdict, arguing that the case was filed too late–despite the fact that she continued to receive discriminatory pay. They reasoned that the company’s decision to pay her less than her male counterparts had been made years earlier. The Supreme Court upheld the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in a 5-4 opinion, stating that employees can’t challenge ongoing pay discrimination if the original decision to pay the employee in a discriminatory fashion occurred more than 180 days earlier–even if that employee was continuing to be paid less.
The decision upset longstanding precedent under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and undermined Congress’s objectives to eliminate workplace discrimination. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg said pointed out that someone could still take action to fix this discriminatory treatment– “[o]nce again, the ball is in Congress’ court.”
In less than two years, Congress did just that, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Under the act, each discriminatory paycheck resets the 180-day limit to file a claim, rather than the original decision to discriminate. This allows employees who are unaware of discrimination initially to challenge pay discrimination when they find out about it.
To listen to the Supreme Court oral arguments or read the opinion, visit Oyez.