Friday, July 13, 2007

Are we overreacting to Ledbetter?

Today's New York Times reports on current efforts by Senate Democrats to introduce equal pay legislation in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Recall that in May the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against Lilly Ledbetter, who discovered, after working at Goodyear for nearly 20 years, that her male co-workers had been receiving higher salaries. The Justices started her 180-day statute of limitations upon alleged discriminatory pay decision, time barring her suit.

In light of Ledbetter, the House last month introduced and passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would allow pay discrimination claims to be filed within 180 days of the issuance of a discriminatory paycheck. It seeks to amend Title VII, the ADEA, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act to specify that for a claim of compensation discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability, the discriminatory pay act does not occur, and the statute of limitations does not begin to run, until "an individual is affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice, including each time wages, benefits, or other compensation is paid, resulting in whole or in part from such a decision or other practice." In other words, the aggrieved employees would have, depending on the state, 180 or 300 days from the receipt of each alleged discriminatory paycheck to file a charge with the EEOC to challenge the pay decision as discriminatory. According to the New York Times article, Senators Edward Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others intend to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

If this legislation becomes law (which is doubtful while Bush is still President), pay discrimination claims would have a floating statute of limitations, potentially granting all employees the right to sue in perpetuity. Statutes of limitations serve several important purposes, including promoting certainty, in that a company needs to know that it will reach a point in time when a decision cannot be challenged in court, and recency, in that at some point in time employees leave companies, memories of events fade, and evidence becomes stale. Lilly Ledbetter, for example, sued for a decision nearly 20 years hence. Who at Goodyear still has any knowledge about that decision? Senator Kennedy is quoted as saying, “The rules for filing equal-pay claims should reflect basic fairness.” Fairness, however, works both ways, for the employer and the employee. Granting a perpetual statute of limitations fosters a perceived fairness for one at the expense of the other.