WASHINGTON—Supreme Court conservatives on Tuesday made it harder for women and minorities to win employment-discrimination complaints, perhaps setting up Capitol Hill's next civil rights battle.
In a 5-4 opinion that's a victory for business, the court set strict time limits on filing such discrimination cases. Employees can't reach more than six months back in time to complain about discriminatory practices, it ruled.
"The . . . filing deadline protects employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
The 180-day deadline is a significant restriction, particularly regarding wage complaints, and it prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to urge Congress to overrule the court's majority.
"Once again," Ginsburg declared for the court's minority, "the ball is in Congress' court."
She was underscoring what happened in 1991 after half a dozen civil rights rulings by the court, then led by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Congress passed what lawmakers called the Civil Rights Act of 1991, overturning the rulings and extending protections against discrimination; for instance, the 1991 law ended "business necessity" as a defense against discrimination claims.
Congress sometimes can be hard-pressed to overturn Supreme Court rulings, although lawmakers often complain about them. Justices, in turn, typically aren't in the habit of soliciting legislative intervention.
But with 75,768 discrimination cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, important consequences surround any decision that could expand or contract the pool of complaints.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the decision would prevent a "potential windfall against employers," and New York City-based business lawyer Barbara Harris praised the ruling for giving employers "closure."
"The court is recognizing that you can't go back in time forever," said Harris, who's with the firm DLA Piper.
Women's rights groups criticized the decision.
"The ruling essentially says tough luck to employees who don't immediately challenge their employer's discriminatory acts, even if the discrimination continues to the present time," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
The board members of the National Women's Law Center include Anita Hill, the law professor who nearly derailed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 nomination with her sexual harassment allegations. On Tuesday, Thomas joined Alito, Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion.
Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg in her dissent.
Caught in the middle is Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama resident who turned 69 last month.
In 1979, Ledbetter started working for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Gadsen, Ala. She won performance awards and eventually become area manager, but her pay fell 15 to 40 percent behind her male counterparts. When she complained, one supervisor said it was easier to shortchange her than the men.
"'You're just a little female and these big old guys, I mean, they're going to beat up on me and push me around and cuss me,'" the supervisor explained, Ledbetter testified.
Ledbetter retired in 1998 and filed her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act gives employees who think they've been discriminated against 180 days to file complaints. Ledbetter argued that she fit within the deadline, as her weekly earnings reflected discriminatory pay decisions made earlier.
Goodyear replied that Ledbetter should have filed her complaint closer to the time of the original pay decisions. A jury sided with Ledbetter, originally awarding her $3 million. The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with Goodyear and said the 180-day clock starts ticking after the discriminatory act. It isn't reset with each new paycheck.
"This short deadline reflects Congress' strong preference for the prompt resolution of employment-discrimination allegations through voluntary conciliation and cooperation," Alito reasoned.