What Did the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Really Do?

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law.  In almost every campaign speech since, the President has claimed that the act bestowed equal-pay rights for women. Specifically, he has said, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act “is a big step toward making sure every worker,” male and female, “receives equal pay for equal work.”
So, how did the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 accomplish such an achievement? Well, it really DID NOT. Rather, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was a boon for plaintiff’s discrimination attorneys. Specifically, it was a Congressional reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting the application of the statute of limitations for pay discrimination. The law overturned Supreme Court precedent governing the statute of limitations under two 40-year old laws.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits wage disparity between men and women who work in the same place and perform jobs that require substantially the same “skill, effort, and responsibility.” The statute of limitations for filing suit is two or three years, depending on whether the discriminatory act is intentional. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act covers discriminatory hiring, firing and promotions as well as pay. It requires filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days after an intentional discriminatory act.
Ms. Ledbetter began working for Goodyear in 1979. Upon her retirement in 1998 she sued under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. She claimed that the discriminatory acts against her occurred in the early 1980s and the mid-1990s when she rejected his sexual advances, received poor performance reports, and was denied appropriate pay raises. During the course of litigation, Ms. Ledbetter elected to “abandon[i]” her Equal Pay Act claim. After trial, a jury found for Ms. Ledbetter, awarding damages and back pay.
Goodyear appealed. The 11th Circuit ruled against Ms. Ledbetter and held that a Title VII claim had to adhere to the law’s 180-day filing requirement. To get around this filing deadline issue, Ms. Ledbetter’s legal argument was that even though she was aware of the discrimination, and that it had occurred years before her filing, every “reduced” paycheck repeated the discrimination. Therefore, she claimed, she had fulfilled the statutory requirement to file within 180 days. In public appearances, however, Ms. Ledbetter has claimed she did not file suit in a timely fashion because she did not know she was being discriminated against until the end of her tenure at Goodyear[ii].
The Supreme Court affirmed the 11th Circuit Court’s decision, disagreeing with Ms. Ledbetter’s interpretation of the statute of limitations. Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion cited precedents, all applying the strict statutory time period. In one (United Airlines v. Evans, 1977), Justice John Paul Stevens—no conservative—wrote for the court: “A discriminatory act which is not made the basis for a timely charge is the legal equivalent of a discriminatory act which occurred before the statute was passed.” The Supreme Court observed that Ms. Ledbetter had abandoned her Equal Pay Act claim. If “Ledbetter had pursued her EPA claim,” the court wrote, “she would not face the Title VII obstacle that she now confronts.” The court said it was open to an argument that the Title VII statute of limitations does not start to run until an employee discovers the discrimination. But the justices noted that “Ms. Ledbetter does not argue” that rule. The court also indicated that it did not want to alter congressional deadlines.
Nevertheless, in 2009, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the aforementioned act, amending Title VII to allow a suit to be brought within 180 days of any “discriminatory compensation decision”—in other words, any too-low paycheck. In its legislative “findings,” Congress proclaimed that the Ledbetter Supreme Court decision “undermines… protections by restricting the time period… contrary to the intent of Congress.”

[i] Please note that both claims had been tossed-out by a magistrate and only the Title VII claim was reinstated by the federal district court. Thus, Ms. Ledbetter “abandoned” her Equal Pay Act claim only in the sense that she did not appeal the decision of the federal district court.
[ii] Ms. Ledbetter has admitted to having advanced knowledge in a sworn pretrial deposition, which is in the Supreme Court case record. She said she had known for many years that her “pay was extremely low” compared with that of male colleagues and that a supervisor in 1992 told her she was being paid less.