First Bill Obama Signed; Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

January 29th was the third anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, enacted by the 111th United States Congress, and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It was the first bill Barack Obama signed into law as a brand new President.

Lilly Ledbetter was employed by Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. She worked as an area manager, a position largely held by men in the company. Initially the company paid Ledbetter equal to other male area managers, but by retirement, she was earning $3,727 per month compared to 15 men who earned from $4,286 per month to $5,236 per month.

When Ms. Ledbetter became aware of the pay discrimination by an anonymous hand written note left in her mailbox, possibly from a co-worker –to this day she says she does not know that person’s identity- she asked the company for compensation. She was disappointed that although praised and promoted by her bosses, she was rewarded with much smaller raises than her male coworkers.

Unfortunately the company refused her request and when she realized that her retirement was going to be based on her salary too,  meaning she was going to be shortchanged long after she’d stop working, she decided to sue the company under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

The District court jury found the company in fault and awarded Ledbetter with back pay and damages. Goodyear petitioned against the court’s decision arguing that all claims to damages before September 26, 1997 were void due to the statute of limitations placed on discrimination claims.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and the case moved all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that according to Title VII, discriminatory intent must occur during the 180-day charging period, so she was only entitled to back pay and damages for those final 180 days before her retirement.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the court. Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissent and read it from the bench, a rare practice.

In 2007, a number of Democratic members of Congress introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which corrected the law to state that if a present act of discrimination is applicable to prior acts -outside of the 180-day statute of limitations- pay discrimination can be incorporated into the claim.

The bill was an issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign, with Barack Obama supporting the bill and his opponent, candidate John McCain, opposing it.  As promised, the President immediately signed the bill into law when it was presented to him.  And in this year’s State of the Union address, he once again reaffirmed his commitment to women’s pay equality.

It is difficult for most of us to grasp that as recent as 2007, women in America could not get compensation for years of pay discrimination. So let’s thank first Mrs. Ledbetter for her courageous and unwavering determination to demand what she deserved and thank our president for his leadership and support for American women!