Two recent court decisions—one by the U.S. Supreme Court and another by a Georgia court—mean employers may soon see a spike in lawsuits brought by employees rushing to meet a 180-day deadline for filing discrimination claims.
In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court handed employers a major victory: No longer will you have to worry that an employment decision you made years—even decades—earlier can come back to haunt you. The court ruled that employees who think they have been discriminated against must act within 180 days of the first alleged discriminatory act.
At issue was whether an allegedly discriminatory decision on pay made years earlier can form the basis for a continuing-violation lawsuit. Lilly Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber, claiming that, after working at the company for 19 years, she was making $6,000 less than the lowest-paid man doing the same work. She claimed each paycheck she received over the years was lower, based on her starting pay.
A jury agreed and awarded her over $3.8 million, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict. She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against Ledbetter in late May.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, said Ledbetter should have filed her claim years earlier, within the deadlines set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He wrote, “This short deadline reflects Congress’s strong preference for the prompt resolution of employment discrimination allegations.”
It was a close case, and dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went so far as to read her dissenting opinion from the bench. That’s very unusual and an indication of the passion she felt about the case. Ginsburg pointed out that many employees who feel they are being discriminated against don’t want to make waves or may not immediately realize that they are being discriminated against. (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, No. 05-1074, U.S. Supreme Court, 2007)
Recent case: The Georgia case reinforced the 180-day deadline for bringing EEOC cases in the state.
Matthew Williams was a carpenter for Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) until the company eliminated his job and moved him into what he considered a dead-end position. He sued, alleging age and disability discrimination and tossed in an asbestos-related negligence count for good measure.
But PCA argued that Williams had waited over six months before filing his EEOC claim. Its records showed Williams was transferred a year before he claimed to have been transferred. Because Georgia is one of the states that does not have an alternative state discrimination agency that employees can use, the company argued Williams couldn’t benefit from the extended deadline Title VII gives employees in certain other states. In the states with their own state agency, employees have 300 days to file their lawsuits.
The federal district court agreed in principle, writing that “In Georgia, a plaintiff must file a charge of discrimination within 180 days of the unlawful employment decision.” However, it refused to dismiss the case and ordered the employer to prove when it made the transfer decision. If it has actual proof that it transferred Williams more than 180 days before he filed the EEOC complaint, the case will be dismissed before it goes to trial. (Williams v. Packaging Corporation of America, No. 7:06-CV-111, MD GA, 2007)
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