Supreme Court Declines to Extend the Statute of Limitations for EEOC Discrimination Claims
On May 29, 2007, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 majority, declined to extend the deadline for filing Title VII employment discrimination cases from the current 180 day rule. The case, Ledbetter v. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., involved a female manager who claimed pay discrimination based upon sex.
This type of discrimination case, known as a disparate-treatment claim, is comprised of two elements: an employment practice, and discriminatory intent. An “employment practice” means “a discrete act or single ‘occurrence’ that takes place at a particular point in time.” Examples include termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer, refusal to hire or a pay decision. An individual wishing to challenge an employment practice under Title VII must first file a charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the challenged employment practice.
Unique in this claim was the plaintiff’s argument that, while she could not prove pay discrimination within the 180 days prior to filing her discrimination claim, her pay discrimination was in fact based upon discriminatory acts that occurred prior to this “charging period” [i.e. beyond the statute of limitations].
The Court specifically rejected this argument and held that a current employment practice with no discriminatory intent is not rendered unlawful simply because it gives some effect to an intentional discriminatory act that occurred outside the charging period. The Court, citing to past precedent, stated that “a discriminatory act which is not made the basis for a timely charge . . . is merely an unfortunate event in history which has no present legal consequences.”
This decision amounts to a clear victory for employers. The relatively short filing deadline for these cases was specifically intended by Congress to protect employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past. In discrimination claims, much if not all of the evidence of intent is circumstantial. As the Court indicated, “the critical issue in a case involving a long-past performance evaluation will often be whether the evaluation was so far off the mark that a sufficient inference of discriminatory intent can be drawn.” Furthermore, “this can be a subtle determination, and the passage of time may seriously diminish the ability of the parties and the fact finder to reconstruct what actually happened.” As the Court ultimately concluded, “experience teaches that strict adherence to the procedural requirements specified by the legislature is the best guarantee of evenhanded administration of the law.”