Pay discrimination lawsuit dismissed by high court

U.S. Supreme Court Rules 5-4 in favor of Goodyear Tire in pay discrimination lawsuit.

From CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A female worker at a tire plant who claimed pay discrimination lost her appeal before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, after the conservative majority concluded she missed a critical deadline for filing a lawsuit.

Lilly Ledbetter accused Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. of gender discrimination because court records showed she was being paid $6,000 less than men doing the same work, including those who were the lowest paid in their job duties.

But a divided 5-4 high court concluded Ledbetter had had only a federally mandated 180-day window in which to make her initial claim.

"The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) charging period is triggered when a discrete unlawful practice takes place," concluded Justice Samuel Alito. Such a "filing deadline protects employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions long past."

He was supported by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Thomas was EEOC chairman for eight years during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

The decision was a victory for Goodyear (Charts, Fortune 500), which was supported by many in the business community.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accused her conservative colleagues of being "indifferent" to victims of pay discrimination.

Ledbetter worked at Goodyear's facility in Gadsden, Ala., for 19 years, beginning in 1979. She first contacted federal authorities in March 1998, alleging sex discrimination. A formal charge was filed three months later. Ledbetter then took early retirement in November.

She claimed she was given poor evaluations and denied raises other workers had been given, all because of her sex. Her lawsuit alleges her starting salary was in line with men performing similar work, but dropped in comparison over the years to the 15 other area managers, all of whom were men. Her pay was 15 to 40 percent less than her fellow managers.

Both the EEOC and a jury ruled in her favor, and Ledbetter was eventually awarded $360,000.

But a federal appeals court threw out the claim, limiting her lawsuit to discrimination that may have happened in the six months prior to her initial EEOC inquiry in March 1998. The three-judge panel also dismissed the pay discrimination allegations during that 180-day window.

The high court Tuesday upheld that ruling.

In her sharply worded dissent, Ginsburg said, "The court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination. Today's decision counsels: Sue early on, when it is uncertain whether discrimination accounts for the pay disparity you are beginning to experience."

Ginsburg said women who do just that would likely lose such a "less-than-fully baked case. If you sue only when the pay disparity becomes steady and large enough to enable you to amount a winnable case, you will be cut off at the court's threshold for suing too late.

The issue of women's workplace rights remains a personal passion for Ginsburg. The 74-year-old justice read part of her dissent from the bench, a privilege rarely used by those on the losing side of a case. She was supported by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer.

As a law professor and private lawyer, Ginsburg personally argued several gender-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court in the 1960s and 70s, as head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project.

The current appeal is Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (05-1074). Top of page