On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed a suit brought by Dr. Diljit K. Chatha, a professor at Prairie View A&M University, against the University (there was a dissenting opinion).
Dr. Chatha, who is of Indian national origin, claimed that she was paid less than other professors because of her race and nationality. The Texas Supreme Court found that Dr. Chatha’s claims were “jurisdictionally barred” because she did not file a complaint under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) within 180 days of the University promoting her to full professor in 2004, which was when Dr. Chatha was informed of the University’s allegedly discriminatory pay decision. Instead, Dr. Chatha filed the complaint about two years later.
The TCHRA provides that a complaint “must be filed no later than the 180th day after the date the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” This is nearly the same as the language in Title VII (the federal law prohibiting discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin) requiring that an EEOC charge be filed “within 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” The Texas Supreme Court acknowledged that it has previously “looked to federal law for guidance” where the TCHRA and Title VII have analogous language. But, it noted that Title VII language has been amended – through the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (more on that below and later this week) – in a manner that the TCHRA has not been amended, even though the Texas Legislature has twice considered a similar amendment.
For the Texas Supreme Court, the question came down to the meaning of “occur,” which is not defined in the statute. The court applied its earlier precedent to hold that the alleged unlawful employment practice occurs – and, therefore, the 180-day time limit begins to run – when the employee is informed of the allegedly discriminatory compensation decision.
So, what if an employee is informed of her employer’s compensation decision but doesn’t know that the decision may be discriminatory? Does the 180-day time limit begin to run then? In other words, what if the CIO of a company is informed that the company will pay her a yearly salary of $200,000, but she doesn’t learn until two years later that the CIO before her, who is a man with the same experience, was paid a yearly salary of $300,000? This is roughly what happened in the Lilly Ledbetter case, only she had worked at Goodyear for nearly 20 years, ultimately as an area manager, for about $44,000 a year, compared to male counterparts making about $62,000 a year. According to Ms. Ledbetter, she only learned of the pay disparity when she received an anonymous note 19 years into her tenure at Goodyear. Again, more on that later this week.
The Texas Supreme Court seems to think that that was not this case, noting in its decision that Dr. Chatha first complained to the University that her pay was inequitable back in 2004. Applying the court’s holding to our hypothetical case, the CIO would be “jurisdictionally barred” from bringing a claim under the TCHRA if she did not file her complaint until she learned of the disparity between her salary and her predecessor’s salary. That means that a court would not have jurisdiction over the claim, even if the CIO argued that the 180 days should be tolled while the company was hiding its discriminatory practices. The court seems to acknowledge as much at the end of its opinion: “It does not escape our attention that it may be difficult for employees to discover discriminatory policies because the secrecy of compensation decisions . . . . We are called on to interpret the law as it is enacted by the Legislature.”