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Court: Ledbetter Act Doesn't Apply to School Age-Bias Case

A federal law designed to expand the scope of federal job-discrimination protections cannot help save the age-bias claims of two school maintenance workers who were reassigned to lower-paying positions, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, held that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was of no help to the two reassigned employees of the Topeka, Kansas, school district.

The federal statute was Congress's response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which held that a female worker's claims of unequal pay were barred because she filed her claim after the time limit had passed for challenging the employer's pay-setting decision. The 2009 law, which amended several federal age-discrimination statutes, says the clock starts for new bias claims each time a worker is paid as a result of a discriminatory compensation decision.

The Topeka case involves Dwight C. Almond III and Kevin C. Weems, maintenance workers who were transferred to lower pay-grade positions in 2003 and 2004, respectively, because of the school district's budget problems. Each worker was provided higher pay for two years before their lower compensation kicked in.

In 2006, the two men filed administrative charges alleging the employment decisions were motivated by age bias. Their timing did not meet the requirements of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and their cases were dismissed.

On appeal, they argued that the Ledbetter Act revived their case, because each time they were paid at their lower pay rates, the school district's discriminatory decision was having an effect. (The 10th Circuit's decision doesn't mention the workers' ages, but the ADEA covers employees age 40 and older.)

In its Nov. 29 decision in Almond v. Unified School District No. 501, the 10th Circuit panel said the Ledbetter Act does not work the "near total revolution" that the plaintiffs claim.

"By its express terms, the act applies only to claims alleging 'discrimination in compensation'—or, put another way, claims of unequal pay for equal work," the decision says. "The plaintiffs before us don't seek to bring such claims and so the Ledbetter Act offers them no help."

The court said Congress was taking its cues from the dissent of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Ledbetter case, but Ginsburg "never advocated a limitations revolution for any claim somehow touching on pay. To the contrary, Justice Ginsburg reaffirmed that hiring, firing, promotion, demotion, and transfer decisions, though often touching on pay, should and do accrue as soon as they are announced."

The Ledbetter Act only governs "accrual" in unequal pay for equal work cases, the court reiterated.

"[T]here's no pay discrimination claim here," the 10th Circuit court said. "True, the plaintiffs were transferred to lower-paying positions. True, this had the ... effect of lowering their compensation. True, we must assume that the transfer decision was discriminatory at this stage of the litigation. But none of this brings the plaintiffs' claim within the ambit of the Ledbetter Act because they don't contend they were ever paid less than others doing the same work."

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