Lilly Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama, for nineteen years. During her time at Goodyear, she worked as one of the only women supervisors and endured sexual harassment. Her boss even told her that women should not be working at Goodyear. Ledbetter had long suspected she was paid less than her male counterparts, but she never knew for sure because employees were not allowed to discuss pay with one another. Ledbetter was nearing her retirement when she was slipped a note that listed the salaries of the other managers, all men, whose income was much higher than hers. Ledbetter had received lower performance rankings, and therefore pay raises, compared to her male peers. With less pay throughout her career, Ledbetter would also be subject to fewer retirement benefits.
Angered to learn the news, Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and sued Goodyear for gender discrimination. Ledbetter claimed that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. A trial jury awarded Ledbetter backpay as well as compensatory and punitive damages amounting to about $3.5 million.
Goodyear appealed the case to the US Court of Appeals Eleventh Circuit, noting that under Title VII, claims had to be made within 180 days of discriminatory action being taken. Therefore, Ledbetter could only seek redress for her last pay. The court agreed with the 180-day rule and also found no evidence of discrimination in her performance reviews. However, Ledbetter had no evidence of the discriminatory action taken nineteen years ago and every year since, so she would not have been able to file a claim within 180 days of her first discriminatory paycheck. Ledbetter’s attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, which was left to decide if a discrimination claim can be made outside of the 180-day limitations period under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the Circuit court’s ruling that Ledbetter’s claim could not be made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as she did not file within 180 days of her first paycheck. The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who noted that “current effects alone cannot breathe life into prior, uncharged discrimination.” Alito wrote that discriminatory intent was an important issue, but the intent was outside of the law’s limitations period. The 180 days were upheld in part because of the need for a quick resolution. The majority concluded that a “discriminatory pay decision made 20 years ago” should not be the focus of Title VII claims.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read aloud her dissent from the bench, an action rarely taken by a Justice. In her dissent, Ginsburg, who was the only woman Justice on the Court at the time, noted that the majority was out of touch with or indifferent to the gender pay gap. Ginsburg found the majority decision to be “incompatible” with Title VII’s “broad remedial purpose.” Ginsburg found the 180-day rule interpretation as “cramped.” The Justice asked the Legislature to act to “correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII,” noting that “the ball is in Congress’s court.”
The Ledbetter decision limited the ability of people to seek redress for discrimination in the workplace. Ledbetter reportedly expected to lose the case, in part because of the lack of women on the bench. She was never awarded money. However, the other branches of government began to heed Justice Ginsburg’s advice, and within eighteen months of the 2006 decision, legislative redress was passed. Ledbetter testified in front of congressional committees and even spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In January of 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first bill into law, which had bipartisan support. The Act, in effect, reversed the Supreme Court decision by loosening the time limits on the ability to seek redress for discriminatory pay. Justice Ginsburg had a signed copy of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act displayed in her office chambers. When Justice Ginsburg passed in September of 2020, Ledbetter remembered the Justice as a “dear friend and champion,” who was instrumental in the Act’s passage.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019, women make only 81.4% of the amount their male counterparts make. These statistics are even worse for minority women. Lilly Ledbetter has continued her work as an equal pay activist who travels the world and is willing to speak with anyone of any party about the gender pay gap.