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Democrats Vow To Widen Window for Pay Bias Claims
Democrats Vow To Change Pay Discrimination Rules

By Bill Leonard  6/5/2007
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A May 29, 2007, Supreme Court ruling that places a 180-day limit on the time workers have to file most pay discrimination complaints drew harsh criticism from Democratic leaders in Congress and prompted them to promise a legislative fix.

The Supreme Court in a narrow 5-4 ruling ( Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., U.S., No. 05-1074, 5/29/07) confirmed that the timeframe for filing discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies to pay discrimination lawsuits. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any allegation of discrimination must be filed within 180 days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice has occurred.”

The result of the court ruling is that employees now must file a complaint of pay discrimination within 180 or 300 days, depending on state law. However, the court did note that the ruling applies to claims filed under Title VII and not the Equal Pay Act.

Critics of the ruling have claimed that the 180-day timeframe is much too short and ignores the reality of the workplace, where it’s common for employees to be in a job for years before learning that their salaries might not match workers in similar positions.

Some employer groups, including the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), supported the court decision. SHRM and the Equal Employment Advisory Council had filed a friend-of-the-court brief stating that a decision in favor of the plaintiff would essentially eliminate the statute of limitations on “any employment decision that either directly or indirectly affected the person’s pay.”

Reacting swiftly to the court decision, a group of Democratic senators announced May 30 that they would introduce legislation to extend the time limit for filing pay discrimination claims under Title VII.

“The Supreme Court decision reflects a poor understanding of the real problems with long-term pay discrimination,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a written statement. “Most new employees feel less comfortable challenging their salaries, and it is very difficult to determine when pay discrimination begins. Furthermore, a small pay gap tends to widen over time, only becoming noticeable when there is systemic discrimination over a period of years.”

Introduction Imminent

Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said they would join Harkin in sponsoring the legislation. The senators promised that they would introduce the bill when Congress returned from its Memorial Day recess in early June.

“Unless Congress acts, this Supreme Court ruling will have far-reaching implications for women and will gravely limit the rights of employees who have suffered pay discrimination based on their race, sex, religion or national origin,” said Clinton. “All Americans deserve equal pay for equal work, and it is our responsibility to get this right.”

Democrats in the House echoed the senators’ comments, announcing that they were prepared to introduce companion legislation.

“A worker undergoing sex, race or other discrimination in pay is discriminated against with each and every discriminatory paycheck, not just when the company set the worker’s pay,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. “This ruling will force Congress to clarify the law’s intention that the ongoing effects of discriminatory decisions are just as unacceptable as the decisions themselves.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said they would join Miller in sponsoring the House bill. The House Democrats pointed to a statement by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who suggested that Congress examine a legislative remedy. Ginsburg wrote in the dissenting opinion that the ruling would penalize any employee who had an “initial readiness to give her employer the benefit of the doubt.”

The American Bar Association (ABA) released a statement claiming that the ruling weakens Title VII protections from pay discrimination and urged Congress to act quickly.

“It is clear that a recent Supreme Court ruling on pay discrimination cries out for a reexamination by Congress because the practical effect of the court’s ruling is to make Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act almost useless in combating pay discrimination in the workplace,” the ABA’s statement read.

“Congress has passed several pieces of legislation that have a single intent: to halt discrimination and harassment in the workplace. In interpreting Title VII the court has identified a serious, even fatal hole. The result is simply not fair.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR News.

Related Articles:

Court Enforces Time Limit on Title VII Pay Discrimination Claims, HR News, May 29, 2007

SHRM Urges Supreme Court To Enforce Time Limit on Pay Bias , HR News, Nov. 29, 2006

Pay Bias Figures Prominently in New Supreme Court Term , HR News, Sept. 26, 2006

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