It’s the little things that can trip you up. This is true of lots of fields, from sports to carpentry to litigation. The Supreme Court just agreed to decide a case involving one of the critical little things: the statute of limitations for filing a claim of discrimination. The Court famously decided this issue two years ago in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber. It refused to allow a wage discrimination case by a woman who made less than the men in the same jobs she held. She worked for years without knowing that she was paid less than the men around her; once she learned, she filed a claim of discrimination. Since the original decision to pay her less than the men had occurred years earlier, even though the effects of that decision were perpetuated and exaggerated as the years went by, the Court held her claim came too late.
Congress reversed this decision by amending the law in January; this was President Obama’s first enactment. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act applies to wage discrimination. Specifically, it governs a “compensation decision or other practice.” There have been some questions about how far the Lily Ledbetter law goes, but it cannot be stretched to protect the 6,000 unhappy applicants in Lewis v. Chicago.
That case will decide whether African-American applicants for firefighter positions should have filed claims of race discrimination within 300 days of the City announcing a discriminatory practice, or 300 days after the employer uses it. In the Lewis case, Chicago used a test that had a disparate impact against the African-American applicants, putting many in the “qualified” category, while most people in the “well-qualified” category were white. The applicants argued that the test did not accurately measure aptitude for firefighting, and therefore should not be used since it had the effect of weeding out African-Americans, not those who would fail at firefighting.
The applicants filed claims after the City hired from the well-qualified list; the Seventh Circuit held that they should have made claims within 300 days of the announcement of the lists. The United States has filed a brief in favor of the firefighters.