In the second presidential debate, when the issue of equal pay for women came up, President Obama responded with an assertion that was flat-out wrong.
He said that he signed the Lilly Ledbetter bill because the Supreme Court had ruled that Ledbetter, who claimed in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that she was paid less than her male co-workers, “couldn’t bring suit because she should have found out about [her lower pay] earlier, whereas she had no way of finding out about it.”
PolitiFact, which claims that it checks the accuracy of statements, compounded this falsehood when it claimed that the Supreme Court had ruled that “the 180-day statute of limitations started from the day an employer made the decision to discriminate—making it impossible for employees who learned of such discrimination later to get relief.” (Emphasis added.)
As Hans Bader at the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out in extensive detail, the Supreme Court said no such thing. It expressly left open the possibility that a claimant could sue after the 180-day time limit under Title VII (the federal anti-discrimination law) if the claimant did not discover the discrimination until later. The Supreme Court expressly stated that Ledbetter never raised this issue in her case: “We have previously declined to address whether Title VII suits are amenable to a discovery rule.… Because Ledbetter does not argue that such a rule would change the outcome in her case, we have no occasion to address this issue.” (Emphasis added.)
In fact, the Supreme Court has a long precedent of recognizing the doctrines of equitable tolling and estoppel for individuals who do not discover an injury or where a defendant hides his misbehavior, which are exceptions to such legally imposed deadlines.
But the distortions get worse. Obama also repeated another falsehood that has been current in the mythical narrative advanced by Ledbetter and the press in her case. Ledbetter has claimed publicly that she missed the deadline for filing her claim because she didn’t know she was being discriminated against until two decades after she started working at the company. As has been pointed out by Bader, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline, and Stuart Taylor of National Journal, Ledbetter admitted in her own deposition that she knew her “pay was extremely low” compared to her colleagues for many years prior to when she filed suit. She admitted that a superior told her in 1992 that she was being paid less than her peers.
Yet, after she lost her case, she and her supporters suddenly started claiming that Ledbetter never knew about the lower pay until the end of her career at Goodyear. That was a complete fabrication that no doubt sounded good in the public relations arena for the purposes of making the case for the Lilly Ledbetter bill.
Another important fact that President Obama’s account avoided was that Ledbetter also failed to assert a claim under the Equal Pay Act (EPA), which has a longer deadline (three years in most suits) than Title VII for filing suit. As the Supreme Court pointed out, because Ledbetter had abandoned any claim under the EPA, she was asking the Court “to deviate from our prior decisions in order to permit her to assert her claim under Title VII.” It was clear that if “Ledbetter had pursued her EPA claim, she would not face the Title VII obstacles that she now confronts.”
And by the way, as pointed out by James Sherk and Emily Goff, the claim that women are paid less than men doesn’t hold water. In fact, once you adjust for occupational choice, education, experience, and other legitimate factors that affect pay, the gender gap essentially disappears.