By Jenny WhalenOct. 4, 2013
Against the backdrop of congressional gridlock and a government shutdown, employment rights pioneer Lilly Ledbetter reminded members of the Michigan Law community Oct. 2 that the power for change rests with them, not just as lawyers, but as active citizens.
"Be in Washington. Visit congress. Your vote does count," Ledbetter told a Hutchins Hall audience during a roundtable discussion in advance of the University's annual Vivian Shaw Lecture. "The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was sponsored and co-sponsored by Democrats and Republicans. It belongs to every American, coast-to-coast and north-to-south."
An equal rights advocate whose name now rests on the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama, Ledbetter's fight to end gender pay discrimination has spanned more than a decade.
Her discrimination case against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 and though the Court ultimately overturned the favorable ruling of the trial court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissenting opinion—read from the bench in a rare moment—encouraged Ledbetter to continue her fight and Congress to act.
Assistant Prof. Kate Andrias, who, along with employment law attorney Edward Macey, '08, joined Ledbetter at the roundtable, was a clerk for Ginsburg at the time of the case and remembers it vividly.
"Many court observers were disappointed in the rulings that year, and this case was one of the most disappointing, but it involved one of the most inspiring plaintiffs," Andrias said. "For anyone who believes in women’s rights, it is an honor to meet Lilly."
Speaking from their respective experiences, Ledbetter, Andrias, and Macey discussed Ledbetter's case and ongoing efforts to end gender discrimination in the workplace.
"In employment law, the biggest hurdle is to get past the judge and bring the case before a jury," said Macey, who is currently working on a discrimination case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. "It's a question of what defines equal work. The manager of the plant says the work is equal, but the experience levels of the employees are different, so the court rules that the work is not equal. Then what is substantially equal work?"
Ledbetter believes she performed the same work as her male counterparts at Goodyear for the better part of two decades and she assumed her pay was comparable until one day she received an anonymous note revealing she was making thousands less per year than the men in her position. Much more was revealed as her case was tried in court.
"I learned a lot during those discovery days," Ledbetter said. "How much I had lost. … If you start out behind you can't catch up. That unequal pay cheated my family, my community, the state, and the nation."
Although a jury awarded Ledbetter restitution from Goodyear, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court found her case to be time barred. As a result, Ledbetter has never received a cent. But as she says, her fight has never been about the money.
"If I change just one of your lives and you're able to go out and change someone else's, my fight will have been worth it," Ledbetter said. "(Gender discrimination) is ridiculous in this country. We can change this."
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