Democrats Overturn Barrier to Unequal-Pay Suits

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

President Obama plans to sign into law tomorrow the first legislation of his White House tenure, reversing a recent Supreme Court ruling that had restricted the ability of women and other workers to sue for pay discrimination.

Congress passed the measure yesterday with a lopsided House vote, handing a swift victory to women's and labor advocates on a civil rights expansion that Obama's predecessor had vowed to block.

Coming exactly a week after Obama took office, the quick work of the new Congress -- and the scheduling of the president's first East Room signing ceremony -- are early emblems of an intention to give the government a more liberal tilt. They also signify a rebalancing of power among the government's branches, with newly ascendant Democrats overruling a decision that the Supreme Court made two years ago by a slender majority that included two conservative justices appointed by President George W. Bush.

The legislation, named for a retired supervisor at a tire plant who belatedly discovered that she was paid less than her male counterparts, essentially rewrites the rules that specify the time within which workers may sue under a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlaws discrimination based on gender, race, national origin or religion.

Under the bill, workers may bring a lawsuit for up to six months after they receive any paycheck that they allege is discriminatory. The high court had held that such cases could be brought only within six months of the discrimination's beginning, rejecting a long-held interpretation by lower courts and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that each paycheck represented a fresh act of discrimination.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the president "looks forward to signing the bill" and that the first lady and Lilly Ledbetter, the woman for whom the legislation and the court case are named, would attend.

Ledbetter, 70, who worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Gadsden, Ala., for 19 years, became an icon for Obama during the campaign and the pomp surrounding his inauguration. She spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August. The weekend before Obama's swearing-in, she was one of 16 guests on the train that carried the president-elect from Philadelphia to Washington. And hours after becoming president, Obama danced with her at the Neighborhood Ball.

Several months before she retired in 1998 as a Goodyear area manager, Ledbetter found an anonymous note in her mailbox at work, tipping her off that she was being paid less than the men who held the same job. That year, she filed an EEOC complaint and received a letter from the commission saying that she had grounds to sue.

She won a jury verdict in U.S. district court in 2003, but Goodyear appealed. Two years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in a ruling that departed from those of nine other federal appellate courts, sided with Goodyear, saying Ledbetter was years too late to sue.

She took the case to the Supreme Court, which upheld the appellate court's view in a 5 to 4 opinion written by its newest member, Justice Samuel A. Alito, a Bush appointee. At the time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave a rare oral dissent, saying she hoped Congress would reverse what the court had done.

The House passed such a bill that year. But Senate Republicans blocked the legislation last spring on a close procedural vote.

The new Congress, with expanded Democratic majorities, pledged to make the Ledbetter measure one of its first pieces of work. The House passed the bill this month, combining it with another pay-equity measure. The Senate acted last week but omitted the related provisions, requiring the House to vote again.

During yesterday's House debate, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, predicted that the change would produce an outpouring of baseless litigation against employers, including complaints "decades after the alleged initial act occurred," and that "trial lawyers, you can be sure, are salivating at this very prospect."

Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) countered that congressional budget analysts have said the legislation would carry no costs and would not lead to additional lawsuits. The legislation "is basic to our sense of justice, to our sense of equality," Miller said, adding: "Let's move along here and get rid of this outrageous, discriminatory practice that was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in some kind of ideological rampage."

Ledbetter said in an interview that she was "thrilled, thrilled." She said the Supreme Court's ruling means that she never will be able to claim the $360,000 she was awarded by a lower court. But she said: "The people who are working deserve to have this right. . . . I am so excited, I doubt I will be able to sleep tonight."

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