Think you might be a victim of pay discrimination? Planning to file a formal complaint? Better hurry.

That’s the essence of a controversial 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recently in the case of Lilly M. Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. She blamed sex discrimination by Goodyear for a series of actions that left her pay significantly below that of men who did similar work at the plant, including men with less seniority than she had.

But in an opinion written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the high court ruled May 29 that Ledbetter had waited too long to file a complaint. In a strict interpretation of federal rules affecting such cases, the court held that employees could not sue over alleged pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unless they complained formally to a government agency within 180 days after their pay was determined.

Without a deadline, Justice Alito wrote, “employers would find it difficult to defend against claims arising from employment decisions that are long past.’

Although the case did not involve a dispute over school pay, the decision has broad implications for many employers and employees–including staff members in school district IT departments, where women often are in the minority.

In addition to claims over pay disparities based on an employee’s sex, complaints may rely on federal prohibitions against workplace bias involving race, color, religion, national origin, age, and disability.

A major effect of the Supreme Court’s decision on school employees and others who believe that their equal-pay rights have been violated will be to force them to act quickly. Legal experts say this could put a burden on employees who might not be certain right away that they have been victims of pay discrimination and thus might need more time to explore the matter before filing a claim.

Lisa Soronen, senior staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, said aggrieved employees would face new pressure to “do their homework” and would need to become more sophisticated in preparing complaints.

She noted that while much information about school salaries is publicly available, it might be difficult for educators to determine the salaries of particular school employees–a factor that could complicate the claims process.

According to Anthony G. Scariano, a veteran school-law attorney at the Chicago law firm of Scariano, Himes, and Petrarca, the Ledbetter ruling is “going to help any employer,” including school districts, in dealing with potential complaints. One area that could be affected, Scariano said, is unequal pay for school employees who supervise separate extracurricular activities for boys and girls.

Ledbetter retired in 1998, shortly after claiming that Goodyear had repeatedly violated her rights under federal law. She was earning $45,000 a year at Goodyear–$6,500 less than the lowest-paid male supervisor. The company said, however, that poor performance evaluations, not discrimination, were behind her lower salary.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) supported Ledbetter’s claim and a jury found in her favor. But a federal appeals court rejected the verdict on grounds that Ledbetter had waited too long to begin her lawsuit. In endorsing that conclusion, the Supreme Court agreed that workers who wait more than 180 days to file a claim under civil-rights law are out of luck.

Ledbetter said she hadn’t sued earlier because employees are less willing to rock the boat when they are new on the job and have no reason to believe that they might be victims of discrimination.

The Supreme Court declared, however, that “current effects alone cannot breathe life into prior, uncharged discrimination.” It continued: “Ledbetter should have filed an EEOC charge within 180 days after each allegedly discriminatory pay decision was made and communicated to her. She did not do so, and the paychecks that were issued to her during the 180 days prior to the filing of her EEOC charge do not provide a basis for overcoming that prior failure.”

The EEOC has provided this summary of the law: “Employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.”

The Supreme Court’s decision prompted a strong dissenting opinion, which was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She said the court’s majority had overlooked “common characteristics of pay discrimination.”

“Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. She added that “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.”

The majority ruling also triggered critical statements from groups concerned about individual rights, including the National Organization for Women, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the NAACP.

Meanwhile, efforts began almost immediately in Congress to counter the ruling’s effects. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts were among those working on legislation.

Links:

Ruling: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/06pdf/05-1074.pdf

National School Boards Association

http://www.nsba.org

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

http://www.eeoc.gov