Anyone who saw the documentary “RBG” probably remembers the assertive Alabama drawl of Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in this important case of employment discrimination. Over the course of her nearly two-decade career at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, Ledbetter faced sexual harassment and was told by her employer that women shouldn’t be working there. (Ledbetter was one of just a few female supervisors).

Because salaried employees were given or denied raises based on performance evaluations, Ledbetter believed she was being shortchanged compared to her male counterparts. Goodyear forbade employees to discuss pay, so Ledbetter didn’t have solid proof of any sex-based discrimination until she received an anonymous note listing the salaries of three male managers. That’s when she learned she’d been paid 40 percent less than the men with equal jobs in her division [sources: NWLC, Dvorak].


Ledbetter filed suit after her November 1998, retirement and claimed discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. The District Court awarded Ledbetter over $3.5 million in back pay and damages (which the judge later reduced to $360,000). But upon appeal, Goodyear argued that “the pay discrimination claim was time barred with regard to all pay decisions made before September 26, 1997 — 180 days before Ledbetter filed her EEOC questionnaire — and that no discriminatory act relating to her pay occurred after that date.”

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision, agreeing that for Ledbetter’s claims to hold up in court, the alleged discriminatory events would have had to occur within the 180-day-period before her filing. And while there were two pay decisions made during that period, the court felt “there was insufficient evidence to prove that Goodyear had acted with discriminatory intent” during that time [sources: AAUW, LLI].

When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the justices had to decide whether a plaintiff is allowed to bring an action under Title VII when the illegal pay discrimination they’re alleging occurred outside the statutory limitations period. The court voted 5-4 to uphold the ruling that discriminatory intent must occur during the 180-day statutory period, so Ledbetter had missed her window.

Ginsburg wrote a passionate dissent, arguing that “pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view. Employers may keep under wraps the pay differentials maintained among supervisors, no less the reasons for those differentials. Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves” [sources: Bowman, Justia].

While the case didn’t turn out as Ledbetter’s supporters had hoped, it went on to make history: On Jan. 29, 2009, President Barrack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 as the first piece of legislation of his administration. The law overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and states that each paycheck containing discriminatory compensation is a separate violation — no matter when that discrimination began [source: EEOC].

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