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The Supreme Court puts a time limit on pay bias lawsuits

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In a 5-4 decision on May 29, the Supreme Court ruled to limit the ability of workers to sue employers for gender pay discrimination that occurred years earlier.

The court said alleged victims of pay discrimination must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the discriminatory act and cannot seek compensation for any discrimination before that time.

Although employer groups say the decision protects employers from unfair liability and requires that workers act promptly to protect their rights, civil rights advocates said it will prevent victims from recovering all the money employers owe them.

The lawsuit involved Lilly Ledbetter, who worked at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala., for 19 years, and shortly before her retirement filed an EEOC complaint alleging she was paid significantly less than men doing the same work. She said that during many years, her male co-workers received larger pay increases and eventually earned much more money than she did.

Although Goodyear Tire & Rubber argued Ledbetter's pay increases were smaller because her work was not as good, she eventually won a $360,000 award. However, the award was thrown out by federal appeals court because it determined that only Ledbetter's most recent pay raise should have been considered—a decision confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote for the minority decision, said discrimination might not be immediately apparent and pay disparity can happen gradually. She said the decision encourages potentially wrongful discrimination lawsuits and says, "Sue early on, when it is uncertain whether discrimination accounts for the pay disparity you are experiencing."

John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio, says time limits for discrimination victims claiming compensation are common in arbitration.

"Frequently, arbitrators put some sort of limitation on time," he says. "There is some precedent in arbitration law for limiting the amount of back pay."

However, Bob Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said this puts an unfair burden on women in the workplace because it can be difficult to confirm discrimination.

"A female in a male-dominated workplace now has to be fully aware of her discrimination and able to ferret it out as it is happening in real time," he says. "Discrimination is an insidious practice, and it works in covert ways."

For more information about discrimination, read the following articles.


6/27/2007

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