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December 14, 2010
How Far Does Lilly Ledbetter Law Go?

A Pennsylvania aircraft mechanic, denied a promotion, tried to sue for violation of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He and his attorney reasoned that, failing the promotion, he was paid less than colleagues performing essentially the same duties. That sounded like pay discrimination to him. Read on to see how he fared.

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What happened. A black Haitian, “Norman” was hired in 1990 to work at Boeing Aircraft’s Ridley Park facility. He was a member of a union and was covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Boeing encouraged workers to apply for offsite assignments, which often led to higher pay-grades and always involved higher hourly wages. Employees won the assignments based on seniority, skills, and ability.

Norman got such an assignment in 1991 but didn’t get another until November 2002. Then, he and two white co-workers were sent to Texas and promoted from pay grade 7 to pay grade 8 and given a pay increase. However, 7 months later, Norman’s co-workers were boosted to pay grade 11, but he was not. He later testified that both had less service with Boeing than he did. And, he complained to his union representative and a Boeing labor relations representative, but neither responded.

In March 2005, Norman filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging race and national origin discrimination. And, in June 2006, he sued in federal district court. A judge there ruled against him, saying he had waited too long—well over the 300-day statutory limit—to complain to EEOC. Norman appealed to the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This time, however, he charged that his rights under the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act had been violated, since every lower paycheck amounted to an act of discrimination.

What the court said. Judges noted that Congress passed the Ledbetter Act in 2009, in an effort to broaden options for plaintiffs beyond being able to sue only when a discriminatory pay decision is first made. One problem for Norman was that, until he reached the appeals court, he didn’t mention pay discrimination, only failure to promote. But his other problem was judges’ belief that Congress intended the Ledbetter Act to apply only to compensation, not to other charges like failure to promote. They said they had not considered the issue before, but that the D.C. Circuit had reached the same conclusion in a similar 2010 case. So Norman’s claim failed again. Noel v. Boeing Co., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, No. 08-3877 (2010).

Point to remember: Ledbetter originally charged that men in the same job were paid more than she, so that’s the purpose of the law.

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