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The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Lilly Ledbetter’s name will forever be synonymous with a woman’s right to equal pay in the workplace. The Lily Ledbetter Act makes it easier for women to challenge unequal pay in court by effectively extending the statute of limitations on filing a claim.

This article details Ledbetter’s legal fight and the eventual passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act. You may also want to visit Equal Pay and Discrimination Against Women and Sex / Gender Discrimination: Overview.

Lilly Ledbetter fought for a decade to close the gap between women’s and men’s wages, overcoming a defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court in her landmark discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

Even after losing at our nation’s highest court, Ledbetter continued to lobby in Washington to change the law. Finally, President Barrack Obama nullified the High Court’s ruling by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

An Anonymous Note

Lilly Ledbetter was employed by Goodyear in Gadsden, Alabama for 19 years.  She was one of the few female supervisors at the Gadsden plant and faced sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Still, she persevered and received recognition as a member of Goodyear management.

In 1998, as she neared retirement, Ledbetter discovered a pay gap between her and her male peers. An anonymous note explaining the salary disparity appeared in her inter-office mailbox. Ledbetter soon learned that her salary was as much as 40 percent lower than that of the lowest-paid male supervisor.

The Lilly Ledbetter Litigation

After an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint, Ledbetter filed an equal-pay lawsuit alleging pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At trial the jury awarded her back pay and about $3.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The victory was short lived, as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict. On appeal, Goodyear successfully argued that Ledbetter's claims were time-barred because the discriminatory decisions relating to pay had been made more than 180 days (the limitations period under Title VII) prior to the date she filed her charge with the EEOC. Ledbetter appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court upheld the Eleventh Circuit decision. Claims like Ledbetter’s, the Court ruled, had to be filed within 180 days of an employer’s decision to pay a worker less—even if the worker didn’t learn about the unfair pay until much later.

The Ledbetter decision seemed to undermine the Congressional goal of eliminating discrimination in the workplace and actually created incentives for employers to conceal their discriminatory conduct until the 180-day period had passed.

Justice Ruth Ginsberg, reading her dissenting opinion from the bench, emphasized that it was up to Congress to correct the Court’s “parsimonious reading of Title VII” stating that “[o]nce again, the ball is in Congress’ court.”

Congress’ Legislative Fix for Ledbetter

Democrats were fast to react, but Republicans immediately opposed the bill as drafted. The bill was defeated by Senate Republicans in April, 2008, who cited the possibility of frivolous lawsuits in their opposition. The bill was successfully reintroduced in January, 2009.

Less than two years after the Ledbetter decision, the Lilly Ledbetter Act was the first substantive piece of legislation signed by President Obama.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act establishes that each discriminatory paycheck (rather than simply the original decision to discriminate) resets the 180-day limit to file a claim.

Alas, there was never any financial redress for Lilly Ledbetter. Despite the law bearing her name, Ledbetter herself ultimately received no compensation at all. Her jury verdict remains vacated, and the ultimate judgment in Goodyear's favor remains final. But her long fight will help protect the rights for all working women who follow in her footsteps.

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