In Schuler v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that an employee cannot use the Ledbetter law, enacted in 2009, to breathe new life into claims that were not timely filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Harold Schuler, an employee of the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, alleged that the firm denied him a promotion to the partnership in both 1999 and 2000 because of his age.

In 1998, the practice group for which Schuler worked proposed to the firm’s headquarters in New York that Schuler, then age 55, be promoted to partner. Notwithstanding this endorsement, he was passed over for partner in both 1999 and 2000. Instead, a 37-year-old employee in the same practice group was proposed for partnership in 1999 and promoted to partner in 2000. During 2001, the group did not propose anyone for partnership. The firm’s partnership agreement provides that each partner shall retire upon reaching age 60 but that in extraordinary circumstances, a partner may work until age 62. In light of this, the firm’s compensation and benefits package for new partners makes it undesirable for most employees over the age of 55 to become partners.

In 2001, Schuler filed charges with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging age discrimination in partnership decisions that occurred in 1999, 2000, and 2001. In 2002, Schuler sued the firm, alleging violations of the ADEA, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and the New York Human Rights Law. The firm moved to dismiss Schuler’s claims regarding the 1999 and 2000 promotion decisions for failure to file timely ADEA charges, as the charges had been filed more than 300 days after the alleged discrimination. In 2004, the U.S. District for the District of Columbia ruled Schuler’s ADEA claims regarding the 1999 and 2000 promotion decisions as untimely, as well dismissing as all counts under New York state law.

In 2005, Schuler filed a new age discrimination suit, alleging that the firm engages in a “pattern or practice” of age bias in assignments and promotions. The district court granted summary judgment for the firm on Schuler’s claims regarding the 2001 promotion decision and dismissed as untimely Schuler’s claims under D.C. law regarding the 1999 and 2000 promotion decisions. The court held that in order to find in favor of the plaintiff in an ADEA case at the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff “must show that a reasonable jury could find his age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employment action he challenges.”

Schuler appealed and claimed that statutory language in the Ledbetter law applies to a “discriminatory compensation decision or other practice” affecting an individual’s pay. He argued that his compensation was adversely affected by the allegedly age-based decision not to promote him to partner and that Ledbetter should control.

In affirming a district court’s dismissal of the ADEA claim, the D.C. Circuit found that the Ledbetter law could not be used to revive Schuler’s age discrimination claim regarding the denials of promotion. In reviewing the language and legislative history of the law, the D.C. Circuit stated that there was no indication that Congress intended either “discriminatory compensation decision” or “other practice” to refer to a denial of promotion, noting that “a discriminatory failure to promote is actionable regardless of whether it affects an employee’s compensation.” “In context, therefore, we do not understand ‘compensation decision or other practice’ to refer to the decision to promote one employee but not another to a more remunerative position.”

In support of its decision, the court reviewed Congress’ specific interest in overturning the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. In that case, Lilly Ledbetter claimed that her compensation was affected by discriminatory compensation decisions that had been made years earlier that left her pay depressed compared to that of men doing the same job. The court stated that the fact “[t]hat the Congress drafted and passed the [Ledbetter law] specifically in order to overturn Ledbetter strongly suggests the statute is directed at the specific type of discrimination involved in that case and not to other unspecified types of discrimination in employment.”