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January 29, 2009

The U.S. Congress and our newly inaugurated President Obama signed into law this morning the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This new law is a clear repudiation of the conservative Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Ledbetter v. Goodyear which many legal scholars agree wiped out years of employment law precedence on equal pay provisions. While my law office emphasizes representing clients with employee benefit claims, as compared to the equal pay, wrongful termination and discrimination suits seen in the broader practice of employee rights, this new law is still worthy of mention.

Ms. Ledbetter is a former employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in a plant located in Gadsden, Alabama. She worked there for more than 19 years and had suspected her male counterparts performing the exact same job on different shifts were paid more than herself. At one point, someone slipped into her company mailbox a copy of her pay stub and a copy of a male counterpart’s pay stub. With this proof in hand, she went to the EEOC and filed a complaint. The evidence was that all of her male counterparts made more money than she did. Even the most junior of those counterparts, who had worked at the company for far less time than Ms. Ledbetter earned, approximately $6,000 per year more than she did. Eventually the case proceeded to an outraged jury which awarded significant damages and attorney’s fees under the pay discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Last year her case eventually found its way to the United States Supreme Court where Justice Alito authored the opinion which held that any “discriminatory intent” of Goodyear did not occur within 180 days prior to Ms. Ledbetter filing the complaint with the EEOC. The court found unpersuasive Ledbetter’s claim that each check served as an act of discrimination and the clock did not run on past injustices. Justices Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter, and Breyer dissented in this five to four decision of the Court. The final result was that the Supreme Court gutted her case and she recovered nothing despite the clear evidence of discrimination over a very long period of time. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court literally suggests that Ms. Ledbetter was required to have filed her complaint within six months of the original act of discrimination despite the clear evidence that she did not know that she was being discriminated against.

Congress essentially overturns the Supreme Court’s decision with this new law signed today, although its prospective application will not help the injustice experienced by Ms. Ledbetter. Even more outrageous is to hear the opponents contend that today’s legislation is nothing more than a “boon to trial lawyers. This bill has nothing to do with protecting trial lawyers or encouraging lawsuits but was enacted to protect those like Lilly Ledbetter who were clearly discriminated against and whose legal protections were ignored by our highest court.

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