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December 01, 2009
Were Paychecks Lower Because of Bias?

A Pennsylvania grants coordinator asked for a raise 3½ years after joining her employer, and again a year later. Neither request drew a response. So, the following year, she filed a complaint of pay discrimination under the Equal Pay Act.

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What happened. “Mauro” joined the Allegheny County Police Department with the title of grants coordinator in 2001. Once on the job, she learned that a male colleague with the title of fiscal manager was earning $7,000 more annually than Mauro. In 2004, she formally requested a title change to grants and projects manager, as well as to be paid the same as or more than the fiscal manager. She made the same request in 2005, but wasn't answered either time.

In 2006 she complained to the county's HR department and filed suit in federal court. HR asserted, 5 months later, that she was being paid fairly for her work and that there was no discrimination. She added a charge of violation of federal civil rights law to her lawsuit.

In federal district court, Mauro argued that the pay discrimination went back to her hiring date in 2001. But while her suit was being considered, the Supreme Court decided in Ledbetter v. Goodyear that a plaintiff has only 300 days after a discriminatory pay decision to file a suit—a deadline that Mauro had clearly missed. She appealed to the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

What the court said. Appellate judges originally heard Mauro's suit in March 2009 and, like the district court, dismissed it as having been filed too late. But in the meantime, Congress had passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was retroactive to all cases that were pending on or after May 28, 2007. That change allowed more time for Mauro between the county's decisions about her pay and her lawsuit. In addition, Mauro had represented herself earlier before the judges. But she then obtained some hefty help for her case when the National Women's Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Partnership for Women and Families filed a joint brief on her behalf.

Appellate judges agreed to rehear her case, and this time they ruled that the county's failures to respond in 2004 and 2005 were forms of denying her a raise, which might have been discriminatory. So, her suit can go forward. Mikula v. Allegheny County, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, No. 07-4023 (9/10/09).

Point to remember: The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act names each paycheck emanating from an earlier discriminatory pay decision as a new discriminatory act, which provides plaintiffs with more time to discover their salary discrepancy and go to court.

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