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Supreme Court Stands Firm on 180-Day Statute of Limitations for Title VII Claims

June 1, 2007

In a decision issued on May 29, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII’s 180-day window for filing employment discrimination complaints bars claims that are based on the lingering effects of discriminatory acts committed years earlier. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., No. 05-1074 (2007).

The Court’s 5-4 decision affirmed the U.S. Court of Appeals’ dismissal of a lawsuit in which the plaintiff contended that gender-biased pay decisions from the 1980s were actionable because they resulted in pay disparities that continued until her retirement in 1998. The Court’s rejection of this argument reinforces the fact that complaints of discrimination under Title VII must be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days after the act of alleged discrimination occurs (or within 300 days if the charge also is covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law). The Court’s decision also highlights two central elements of Title VII: its limited scope, encompassing only recent "discrete acts" committed with discriminatory intent; and its underlying policy preference, evident in the procedural mechanisms it creates, for swift, amicable resolution of employee complaints.

The case began with a questionnaire Lilly Ledbetter, an employee at a Goodyear plant in Alabama since 1979, submitted to the EEOC shortly before she retired in 1998. Ledbetter alleged that supervisors, including one whose sexual advances she had rebuffed, frequently gave her unjustifiably poor performance evaluations in the 1980s because of her gender. As a result, she said, her pay remained consistently lower than that of her similarly situated colleagues, all of whom were male, throughout her tenure at Goodyear. Seeking backpay and damages, Ledbetter argued that her claim fell within the 180-day statute of limitations applicable to Title VII claims, on the theory that each paycheck she received from Goodyear constituted a fresh, actionable violation. She called on the Court to apply a "payroll accrual rule" distinguishing complaints regarding biased pay decisions, the impact of which can ripple far into the future, from other claims.

But the Court’s majority rejected that distinction. "It would shift intent from one act (the act that consummates the discriminatory employment practice) to a later act that was not performed with discriminatory motive," Justice Alito wrote for the majority. "The effect of this shift would be to impose liability in the absence of the requisite intent." The majority opinion framed the issue as akin to the timing questions raised in previous Title VII cases such as United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans; 431 U.S. 553 (1977), and Delaware State College v. Ricks 449 U.S. 250 (1980). In those cases, Justice Alito wrote, "we held that the EEOC charging period ran from the time when the discrete act of alleged intentional discrimination occurred, not from the date when the effects of this practice were felt."

Some Title VII violations involving pay disparity may indeed consist of perpetual, individual acts, Justice Alito said. For example, if a company uses an illegally discriminatory pay scale, then each issuance of a paycheck may constitute a "discrete act" in violation of Title VII, so that a plaintiff can bring suit within 180 days of receiving such a paycheck even if the pay scale had been in place for decades. "However, Ledbetter does not assert that the relevant Goodyear decisionmakers acted with actual discriminatory intent" during the 180-day period before she filed her EEOC questionnaire, Justice Alito wrote.

Title VII’s "integrated, multistep enforcement procedure," Justice Alito said, did not allow the Court to examine acts that occurred more than 180 days before the filing date. The statute, he said, encourages "prompt processing of all charges of employment discrimination," as the Court wrote in Mohasco Corp. v. Silver in 1980. Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, at 825 (1980). He also noted that the Ledbetter case exemplifies the kind of evidentiary problems that often arise in claims based on conduct from decades past: the main supervisor Ledbetter accused of gender bias has died.

The four dissenters in Ledbetter urged Congress to take action to overturn the majority’s decision. Writing for the dissent, Justice Ginsburg said, "Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court. … [T]he legislature has cause to note and correct the Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII." New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has already expressed her intention to introduce legislation amending Title VII in response to the Ledbetter decision.

For now, the Ledbetter decision is good news for employers, as it will relieve them of the burden of defending Title VII claims of salary discrimination based on acts that allegedly occurred long before any complaint was filed. Even after Ledbetter, however, employers may still be held liable for present effects of past discriminatory acts under other federal and state statutes. The Equal Pay Act (EPA), for example, empowers employees to sue for workplace discrimination that occurs in the absence of discriminatory intent.