Lilly Ledbetter, living a lie

Lilly Ledbetter, the unsuccessful plaintiff in an equal pay case that went to the Supreme Court, has become ubiquitous this political season. She spoke at the Democratic National Convention, has testified in congressional hearings, and appears in an ad for Barack Obama. Congress is considering legislation that bears her name. The Washington Post, in a piece by Matthew Mosk, reverentially described her as “the Alabama woman whose fight for equal pay led her to the United States Supreme Court and inspired. . .fair pay legislation.”

Not since the equally alliterative and industrial-sounding Rosie the Riveter, has a working woman become such a folk hero. But like Rosie, the Lilly Ledbetter being presented for public consumption is largely mythical.

The real Lilly Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company from 1979 until she retired in 1998. After she retired, she sued Goodyear under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 for alleged pay discrimination.

Ledbetter’s pay discrimination claim went to a jury which found in her favor. However, the court of appeals reversed this verdict on the grounds that she did not file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within the required statute of limitations period.

In her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ledbetter raised the following issue:

Whether and under what circumstances a plaintiff may bring an action under Title VII. . .alleging illegal pay discrimination when the disparate pay is received during the statutory limitations period, but is the result of intentionally discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period.

Ledbetter framed the issue this way because she did not claim that the relevant Goodyear decisionmakers acted with discriminatory intent during the limitations period. Instead, she asserted that the paychecks she received during this period were unlawful because they would have been larger if she had been treated in a nondiscriminatory manner prior to the limitations period.

In other words, the alleged intentional discrimination had occurred years earlier, outside of the limitations period. But Ledbetter felt its ongoing consequences every time she received a paycheck, until the end of her career, because her pay never caught up to where she believes it would have been absent the early discrimination. An employee’s pay at any given point in time is typically a function of years of pay decisions.

The Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals that Ledbetter’s challenge to pay decisions that pre-dated the limitations period was time-barred. In doing so, the Court correctly applied three decades of its own precedent in cases where Title VII plaintiffs have attempted to rely on the current effects of past discrimination to defeat a statute of limitations defense.

The Court also emphasized the common sense proposition that stands behind these decisions: in discrimination cases “the employer’s intent is almost always disputed and evidence relating to intent may fade quickly with time.” Thus, an employee who waits until years after the underlyng alleged intentional act of discrimination to sue, as Ledbetter did, undermines the ability of the justice system to conduct a fair trial. For example, by the time Ledbetter brought her case to trial, the supervisor whose decisions formed the main basis for her pay discrimination claim was dead.

There is, of course, nothing novel in the Supreme Court’s reasoning. Statute of limitations period exist precisely to prevent the injustice inherent in situations where a plaintiff “sleeps” on his or her rights for years.

Ledbetter and her Democratic fan club argue, however, that the result in her case permits hidden discrimination. They would have the public believe that the Ledbetter decision leaves plaintiffs who don’t discover concealed discrimination for many years unable to overcome the statute of limitations defense, and thus unable to remedy wrongdoing.

This is nonsense. For decades the Supreme Court has recognized that the limitations period in a Title VII case can be extended or tolled in such circumstances. Tolling is available where, among other situations, the plaintiff has no reason to suspect discrimination at the time of the disputed event.

But Ledbetter did not argue that the limitations period should be tolled in her case, and for good reason. Ledbetter testified that she knew by 1992 that her pay was out of line with her peers. In 1995, she spoke to her supervisor about the problem, telling him that “I knew definitely that they were all making a thousand at least more per month than I was and that I would like to get in line.” Yet Ledbetter waited until 1998 to file her EEOC complaint.

This delay is particularly difficult to understand given the fact that, in 1982, she had filed a sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC. That dispute was settled without litigation shortly thereafter. Had Ledbetter followed the same course with her pay claim, she would have had her day in court, and Goodyear would have had a fair chance to defend itself. That this did not occur is Ledbetter’s fault.

Prevented by the facts from arguing in a real court that she didn’t have enough knowledge about her pay situation to bring a timely EEOC charge, Ledbetter (and those who seek political advantage through her) now raise this false claim in the court of public opinion. For example, Ledbetter claims that “the only way that I really knew [about the pay discrimination] was that someone left an anonymous note in my mailbox showing my pay and the pay for the three males who were doing the same job, just on different shifts.” According to Ledbetter, “when I saw that note, it just floored me. I was so shocked at the amount of difference in our pay for doing the same exact job. And I went immediately to EEOC.”

This claim, of course, cannot be reconciled with her sworn testimony that three years before allegedly receiving the “anonymous note,” she told her supervisor that she definitely knew that she was making thousands less than her male counterparts for the same work.

Lilly Ledbetter is living a lie, one that Barack Obama hopes will help propel him into the White House.

You can watch Lilly Ledbetter spin her yarn here :

You can watch the Obama campaign exploit it here:

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