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Equal Pay Act claims may hit employers by surprise

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in Compensation and Benefits,Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Employers may think last year’s U.S. Supreme Court Ledbetter decision means employees can’t wait years before complaining about sex discrimination if the issue is pay. Surprise! It’s not always true.

While claims under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions are limited to 300 days from the allegedly discriminatory raise or pay-setting decision, claims under the Equal Pay Act (EPA) can be filed as much as three years later.

What’s more, EPA claims charging unequal pay for equal work don’t have to be filed with the EEOC first. Employees can go directly to court, denying employers an early opportunity to settle disputes before paying thousands to defend a federal lawsuit.

Recent case: Adele Sammarco sued her former employer for sex discrimination, claiming that she was paid less than similarly situated men. Sammarco worked under the terms of a three-year employment contract that called for yearly salary increases. Eventually, she was earning $50,000. When the contract expired in July 1999, the company kept Sammarco on, but kept her salary at $50,000. She alleged she should have gotten more because male employees did.

The court easily tossed out her Title VII claim because she hadn’t filed an EEOC complaint within 300 days of the last increase. But the court said her EPA claim could go forward because she had up to three years to file that claim—and did not have to file an EEOC complaint first. What’s more, each paycheck would constitute a separate violation.

Here’s how the court calculated the deadlines. It said July 1999 was the date of her last salary adjustment, and each paycheck after that date could be a separate violation.

Because she sued her former employer on Nov. 25, 2002, she could go back to at least Nov. 25, 2001, to find a discriminatory action, and perhaps as far as Nov. 25, 1999. That’s because the EPA has a two-year statute of limitations, extended for another year if the employer acts “willfully.” (Sammarco v. New York 1, et al., No. 02-CV-6239, ED NY, 2008)

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