President-elect Obama and Democrats in Congress will give high priority to legislation that would overturn the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, yesterday's NY Times reported. In Ledbetter, the Court rejected that ongoing discrimination started a new statute of limitations every time it occurred. Thus, the plaintiff, Lilly Ledbetter, had to challenger her employer's salary decision, which she argued was discriminatory on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII, three months from when when her salary was first determined, rather than three months from any given paycheck. This interpretation of the statute of limitations is ridiculously stingy, since it often takes a little while before ongoing discrimination is apparent to a plaintiff. As a result plaintiffs are denied legal recourse in what may be valid discrimination cases, simply because the plaintiff they didn't notice the discrimination right away.
Because the Court's decision is based on an interpretation of a statutory provision, Congress can essentially void that interpretation by amending or superseding the statute in question. This is apparently exactly what the Democratic majority Congress, with the support of the new President, plan to do. Such anti-Ledbetter legislation would have an impact beyond employment discrimination cases under Title VII, as the decision has been used by lower courts to deny cases in a variety of civil rights contexts. We've seen one example already of the Ledbetter decision used to reject a Title IX suit filed by female wrestlers at the University of California at Davis, who tried to challenge discriminatory treatment that occurred between 2000 and 2001 and produced effects that lasted even longer. The lower court applied the Ledbetter rationale and a two year statute of limitations to conclude that a suit filed in 2003 was untimely -- the plaintiffs had to file two years from when the discriminatory treatment began in 2000. New legislation to restore the fairness of a longer statute of limitations would thus be beneficial to Title IX plaintiffs as well.