The New York Times
Justices’ Ruling in
May Draw Quick Action
By ROBERT PEAR,
nytimes.com on the Web. January 5, 2009
WASHINGTON — President-elect
Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress are planning swift action to overturn a
Supreme Court decision that made it much harder for people to challenge
discrimination in employment, education, housing and other fields.
The decision, involving a woman named Lilly M. Ledbetter, who had accused her
employer of sex-based pay discrimination, was issued in May 2007. Since
then, courts around the country have gone far beyond the facts of that case and
cited it as a reason for rejecting lawsuits claiming discrimination based on
race, sex, age and disability.
In some cases, after initially ruling for employees, judges have reversed
themselves and ruled in favor of employers. The judges said they had to
switch because of the Supreme Court decision.
Ms. Ledbetter, who worked at a Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., for 19
years, spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August, campaigned for Mr.
Obama and made a television commercial for him. She became a hero to many
Democrats, their answer to “Joe the Plumber.”
As a senator, Mr. Obama was a co-sponsor of a bill to overturn the Supreme Court
decision. In the final presidential debate, he said he would appoint
judges who understood the struggles of “real-world folks” like Ms. Ledbetter.
The legislation would essentially relax the statute of limitations under various
civil rights laws, giving people more time to file charges. President Bush
threatened to veto the bill, but Mr. Obama is eager to sign it.
“Obama said he would see me in the White House when he signs the bill,” Ms.
Ledbetter said in an interview.
Mr. Obama describes the bill as part of a broader effort by his incoming
administration to “update the social contract,” reinvigorate civil rights and
close the pay gap between men and women.
At issue in the Ledbetter case was the deadline for filing charges under Title
VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court did not deny that
Ms. Ledbetter had suffered discrimination, but said she should have filed her
claim within 180 days of “the alleged unlawful employment practice” — the
initial decision to pay her less than men performing similar work.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that each paycheck was a violation of
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the statute of
limitations must be strictly interpreted to protect employers against “stale
claims” and “tardy lawsuits.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Ms. Ledbetter’s pay
fell behind that of men because of “a long series of decisions reflecting
Goodyear’s pervasive discrimination against women managers in general and
Ledbetter in particular.”
Justice Ginsburg invited Congress to correct the court’s “cramped
interpretation” of the law.
That is exactly what Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats say they plan to
Their bill states that a violation occurs each time a person receives a paycheck
resulting from “a discriminatory compensation decision.”
The House passed a similar bill, 225 to 199, in July 2007. In the Senate,
supporters fell three votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster, but
they will almost surely be able to clear that hurdle in the new Congress.
The United States Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill, saying it “would lead to
an explosion of litigation” against employers. Under the bill, “it is
possible that claims could be filed decades after an allegedly discriminatory
act occurred,” said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the chamber.
In the last 19 months, federal judges have cited the Ledbetter decision in more
than 300 cases involving not only Title VII, but also the Age Discrimination in
Employment Act; the Fair Housing Act; a law known as Title IX, which bars sex
discrimination in schools and colleges; and even the Eighth Amendment to the
Constitution, which protects prisoners’ rights.
Lower-court judges have been influenced by two particular aspects of the
Ledbetter decision. The Supreme Court drew a sharp distinction between
“discrete acts” of discrimination and the continuing effects of past violations.
Employers, it said, do not necessarily violate the law when their recent actions
have no discriminatory purpose, but perpetuate the adverse effects of pay
decisions made in the past.
The Ledbetter precedent has stymied a wide range of civil rights plaintiffs.
In March 2007, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the Federal District Court here allowed
employees at the Federal Aviation Administration to challenge the agency’s pay
scales as biased against older workers.
A year later he reversed himself and ruled for the government, saying, “The
import of Ledbetter for this case is clear.”
F.A.A. employees cannot sue on the theory that each paycheck constitutes “a
discrete act of discrimination,” the judge said.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reached a similar
conclusion in a lawsuit by blacks who had applied unsuccessfully for jobs as
firefighters in Chicago. Judge Richard A. Posner cited the Ledbetter case
in rejecting their contention that they were victims of a “continuing violation”
of the civil rights law.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit extended this logic to
a housing discrimination case in Idaho. The ruling significantly limits
the ability of plaintiffs to enforce their rights under the Fair Housing Act.
The Idaho plaintiff, Noll Garcia, uses a wheelchair. He said his apartment
violated federal standards because it was not readily accessible. Under
the law, he had two years to challenge a “discriminatory housing practice” in
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for the majority, said this two-year period
began when construction of the building was complete. Mr. Garcia lost out
because he filed suit in 2003 — within two years of renting the apartment, but
10 years after it was built.
Three dissenting judges said the decision showed how “statutes of limitations
have been twisted by courts to limit the scope and thrust of civil rights laws.”
A federal district judge in Sacramento also relied on the Ledbetter case in
rejecting claims by female wrestlers who said they had been denied athletic
opportunities at the University of California, Davis.
The women missed the deadline for filing suit — one year after the last
“discrete act” of discrimination — and cannot breathe new life into their claims
by pointing to the continuing effects of prior discriminatory decisions, the
Congress and the courts have been tussling over the scope of civil rights for
more than a century.
In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down a law that barred racial discrimination
by hotels, theaters and railroads, saying Congress had exceeded its power.
In 1988 and 1991, Congress expanded civil rights protections that had been
curtailed by the Supreme Court.
In September, Congress repudiated several Supreme Court decisions that had
undercut the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“There’s a historic pattern of the court’s being hostile to civil rights
statutes and Congress stepping in to overturn those narrow court rulings,” said
Deborah L. Brake, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.