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Justices Decline to Hear School Workers' 'Ledbetter' Claim

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of two school district employees in Kansas who sought to use the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to revive their claims of age discrimination in employment.

The appeal was one of hundreds the justices turned away on Oct. 1, the first day of their new term, and it was one of about a dozen education cases denied review, most dealing with employment issues. While the high court next week hears a major case on affirmative action in college admissions (my preview of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Case No. 11-345, is in Education Week here), the rest of the docket is rather light on education-related cases.

The appeal in the discrimination case involves the claim of two maintenance workers in the Topeka, Kansas, school system that they faced age bias when they were transferred to lower-paying jobs in 2003 and 2004 as part of belt-tightening in the district.

The workers, Dwight L. Almond III and Kevin C. Weems, sued the district under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. A federal district court ruled that the men had waited too long to challenge their adverse job actions and that their suits were barred.

In the meantime, early in President Barack Obama's administration, Congress passed the Ledbetter Act, which was meant to overrule the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. That decision took a narrow view of how long employees had to challenge pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Lilly Ledbetter, of course, was the Goodyear plant supervisor who learned only after her retirement that she was paid significantly less than her male counterparts over many years of employment, but under the Supreme Court ruling she could not sue over most of those discriminatory pay decisions.)

In the Topeka district workers' case, the federal district court took a new look at their claims after the Ledbetter Act amended Title VII and the ADEA to make it easier to challenge compensation decisions. But the district court ruled that the Ledbetter Act did not save the workers' cases. And in a decision last November, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, agreed.

In a lengthy opinion interpreting the Ledbetter Act's language, the 10th Circuit court said it was meant to address claims of unequal pay for equal work, "nothing more, nothing less."

"The act can't save the plaintiffs' claims in this case," said the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Neil M. Gorsuch for a unanimous three-judge panel. "That's because there's no pay discrimination claim here. True, the plaintiffs were transferred to lower-paying positions. True, this had the knock on 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."

The two employees appealed to the Supreme Court in Almond v. Unified School District No. 501 (No. 12-67), arguing that the 10th Circuit court gave too narrow a reading to the Ledbetter Act. The Topeka school district filed a response that said several other federal appeals courts to address the issue have reached the same interpretation of the Ledbetter Act as the 10th Circuit.

The justices declined without comment to hear the workers' appeal.

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