When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Ledbetter case in the spring of 2007, employers breathed a collective sigh of relief. It appeared that employees whose current paychecks were smaller because of sex discrimination years ago were barred from suing and instead would have had to file their lawsuits within months of the original discriminatory pay decision.
It turns out that Ledbetter may not be as simple a decision as it first appeared. Now, federal courts are starting to wedge open the door to lawsuits years—even decades—after the fact. Courts have begun to say that the date that counts is not when the original discriminatory act occurred, but when the employee realized the pay decision reflected in her current paycheck was based on discrimination.
Of course, when employees are discouraged from openly discussing their pay, that discovery may come years later, triggering the lawsuit.
Recent case: Dr. Joan Mavrinac sued Mercy Hospital and others for allegedly denying her a pay increase in 1997. At the time, she thought she would get an automatic $5,000 increase when she became certified in emergency medicine. But she didn’t—the hospital told her she didn’t earn the right kind of certification. However, many years later she found out that a male doctor who never earned any certification got an increase.
Mavrinac sued under the Equal Pay Act, and the hospital said her case should be dismissed under the Ledbetter decision since she hadn’t filed within the deadline. But the court said she should have a chance to prove that she didn’t discover until recently the sex discrimination that was allegedly behind the decision. It also noted that a jury should decide whether the hospital purposely withheld from Mavrinac information about other doctors’ pay.
She’ll now have the chance to prove that the hospital prevented her from discovering the truth, either by purposely misleading her or by keeping the lid on everyone’s salary. (Mavrinac v. Emergency Medicine Association of Pittsburgh, et al., No. 04-1880, WD PA, 2007)
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