Ledbetter v. Goodyear: Circumscribing Title VII's Discrimination Protections

Published date01 September 2011
Date01 September 2011
Subject MatterArticle
H-41 Ledbetter v. Goodyear:
Circumscribing Title VII’s

By Mark D. Bradbury, PhD
In Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007) the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to clarify Title
VII’s rules related to the timeliness of pay discrimination claims. The Court’s
decision formalized the legal difference between discrete instances of
discrimination and the lingering effects of discrimination as they relate to how
much time an employee has to file a discrimination claim with the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission. A key distinction was drawn between a
discriminatory organizational pay structure and the actions of individual
supervisors. Ultimately the Court equated decisions related to pay with other
personnel actions and requires employees to promptly file an alleged
discriminatory action with the EEOC. When considered in the context of the
limitations of the Equal Pay Act, the Ledbetter decision further tips the weighing of
interests toward the employer.
PPay inequity by gender remains an indelible characteristic of the U.S. work-
place despite two independent and long-standing federal protections against
discrimination in compensation.1 The Equal Pay Act of 1963, since incorporat-
ed into the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, requires employers to compensate
employees of different genders at the same rate, provided the employees hold posi-
tions “the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and
which are performed under similar working conditions.”2 Similarly, Title VII of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful “to discriminate against an individual with respect
to…compensation…because of such individual’s…sex.”3 Both of these laws are
enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), albeit with dif-
ferent rules related to, for example, the timeliness of the filing of claims of alleged
In Ledbetter v. Goodyear4, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to clarify the statute
of limitations under Title VII as it relates to filings with the EEOC. The Act requires that
a charge be filed within 180 days “after the alleged unlawful practice occurred.”5 At
issue in Ledbetter was whether there is a distinction between discrete instances of
discrimination and the lingering effects of discrimination in terms of how much time a
claimant has to file a discrimination claim with the EEOC.
Public Personnel Management
Volume 40 No. 3 Fall 2011

Title VII
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 constituted a major overhaul of the federal government’s
efforts to promote equal employment opportunity. In particular, Title VII prohibited
discrimination by private sector employers and labor organizations with respect to the
“terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” including compensation, on the basis
of an applicant’s or employee’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”6 In
addition, a new federal enforcement agency, the EEOC, was created to implement the
Act and “to intervene in a civil action…by an aggrieved party against a respondent.”7
Thus, the EEOC was charged with receiving, processing, investigating, and attempting
to resolve discrimination complaints brought against employers in the private sector.8
Lingering Effects Under Title VII
Title VII clearly prohibits acts of overt, intentional discrimination in employment, or so-
called disparate treatment, on the basis of certain protected demographic
characteristics. A key question that arises, however, is the extent to which the law also
protects employees against the lingering effects of prohibited discrimination long after
the actual employment decision or action occurred. This issue can be succinctly framed
by two Supreme Court decisions.
In Bazemore v. Friday9, a racially discriminatory compensation scheme was in
place at the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service prior to the enactment of
Title VII, and persisted after the Act was extended to the public sector in 1972.
Although damages could not be recovered for pre-Title VII discriminatory disparities in
pay, the Court ruled that liability for such a facially discriminatory practice existed “to
the extent that this discrimination was perpetuated after 1972.”10 Since an
organizational policy led to the pay disparity, each paycheck was a discrete, and
actionable, act of discrimination.
The Court...

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