In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, upheld the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision finding that a Title VII disparate treatment claim is not timely even though the plaintiff filed within 180 days of a nondiscriminatory act that resulted in an adverse effect that was based on past discrimination. The plaintiff must file within 180 days of the initial discrete discriminatory action, including a pay-setting decision, even if the pay disparity persists or grows throughout the employee’s career, otherwise the claim is untimely.

Lilly Ledbetter worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama from 1979 to 1998 and during most of this time period, employees were given or denied pay raises based on their performance evaluations. Ledbetter claimed that she received poor performance evaluations because of her sex and, as a result, her pay did not increase as it should have if she not been discriminated against. She submitted an EEOC questionnaire in March 1998 alleging sex discrimination, filed a formal EEOC charge in July and commenced the action in November 1998 after taking an early retirement.

Ledbetter argued that the paychecks she received during the 180-day filing period were unlawful because they would have been larger if, in the past and prior to the filing period, she had been evaluated in a non-discriminatory manner. She also argued that the 1998 decision to deny her a pay raise was unlawful because it “carried forward” the effects of the prior, discriminatory decisions.

Relying on a variety of prior decisions, the majority found that the 180-day charging period begins when a “discrete unlawful practice” occurs. The majority found that “a new violation does not occur, and a new charging period does not commence, upon the occurrence of subsequent nondiscriminatory acts that entail adverse effects resulting from past discrimination.”

Ledbetter also argued that each paycheck she received began a new charging period and was a new discriminatory event and, under the Court’s decision in Bazemore v. Friday, the Court had adopted a “paycheck accrual rule.” However, the majority opinion found that reading Bazemore in such a way would essentially abolish the requirement to prove discriminatory intent if the disparate treatment claim involved a pay case. The majority interpreted Bazemore to stand for the proposition that “an employer violates Title VII and triggers a new EEOC charging period whenever the employer issues paychecks using a discriminatory pay structure.” Since Ledbetter did not assert the pay structure was discriminatory, Bazemore was inapplicable.