Employees must file discrimination cases within 180 days

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed employers a major victory. No longer will you have to worry that an employment decision you made years—even decades—earlier will 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 allegedly discriminatory act.

The case: 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 still made $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 Supreme Court, which ruled against Ledbetter in late May.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that Ledbetter should have filed her claim years earlier, within the deadlines set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Alito 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)

Bottom line: Employees have to file their EEOC complaints promptly. Since the Civil Rights Act provides several deadlines for filing a complaint with the EEOC, how long an employee has to file depends on the state he or she is employed in. The deadline in New York is 300 days.

On the other hand, employees who also want to file an employment-discrimination claim under New York state’s Human Rights Law have up to one year from the most recent act of discrimination to file that claim. Employees who miss the federal 300-day deadline still may have time to file the state claim.