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Public Statements

Ledbetter Decision

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

LEDBETTER DECISION -- (Senate - June 05, 2007)

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join in correcting the Supreme Court's decision last week in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. That decision has undermined a core protection of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark law against job discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, and religion. Title VII has made America a stronger, fairer, and better land. It embodies principles at the heart of our society--fairness and justice for all.

Americans believe in fair treatment, equal pay, and an honest chance at success in the workplace. These values have made our country a beacon of hope and opportunity around the world. The Ledbetter decision undermined these bedrock principles by imposing unrealistically short time limits for employees seeking redress for wage discrimination.

In the case before the Supreme Court, a jury had found that Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company had discriminated against Lily Ledbetter by downgrading her evaluations because she was a woman in a traditionally male job. Year after year, the company used these unfair evaluations to pay her less than her male coworkers who held the same job. The jury was outraged by Goodyear's misconduct and awarded back to Ms. Ledbetter to correct this basic injustice and hold the company accountable.

The Supreme Court ruled against her, holding that she had waited too long to file her lawsuit. It ruled that she should have filed her lawsuit within a short time after Goodyear first decided to pay her less than her male colleagues. Never mind that she didn't know at the outset that male workers were paid more. Never mind that the company discriminated against her for decades and that the discrimination continued with each new paycheck she received.

Requiring employees to file pay discrimination claims within a short time after the employer decides to discriminate makes no sense. Pay discrimination is different from other discriminatory actions because workers generally don't know what their colleagues earn. It is not a case of being told ``you're fired'' or ``you didn't get the job'' when workers at least knows they have been denied a job benefit. With pay discrimination, the paycheck comes in the mail, and workers usually have no idea if they are being paid fairly. Common sense and basic fairness require that they should be able to file a complaint within a reasonable time after getting a discriminatory paycheck instead of having to file the complaint soon after the company first decides to shortchange them for discriminatory reasons.

The Court's decision in the Ledbetter case is not only unfair, it sets up a perverse incentive for workers to file lawsuits before they have investigated whether pay decisions are actually based on discrimination. Under the decision, workers who wait to get all the information before filing a complaint of discrimination could be out of time. As a result, the decision will create unnecessary litigation as workers rush to beat the clock on their equal pay claims.

The Supreme Court's decision also breaks faith with the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support--a vote of 93 to 5 in the Senate and 381 to 38 in the House. The 1991 act had corrected this same problem in the context of seniority, overturning the Court's decision in a separate case. At the time, there was no need to clarify title VII for pay discrimination claims since the courts were interpreting title VII correctly. Obviously, Congress needs to act again to ensure that the law adequately protects workers against pay discrimination.

It is unacceptable that victims of discrimination are unable to file a lawsuit against ongoing discrimination. Yet that is what happened to Lily Ledbetter. I hope that all of us, on both sides of the aisle, can join in correcting this obvious wrong.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the Supreme Court also has undermined other bipartisan civil rights laws in ways Congress never intended. It has limited the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, made it harder to protect children who are harassed in our schools, and eliminated individuals' right to challenge practices that have a discriminatory impact on their access to public services. Congress needs to correct these problems as well.

Let's not allow what happened to Lily Ledbetter to happen to any other victims of discrimination. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in her powerful dissent, the Court's decision is ``totally at odds with the robust protection against employment discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure.'' I urge my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, to restore the law as it was before the Ledbetter decision, so that victims of ongoing pay discrimination have a reasonable time to file their claims. The Lily Ledbetters of our Nation deserve no less.

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