When President Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, he will be fulfilling a campaign promise but undermining the American economy. This bill is not about sex discrimination — paying men and women different wages for the same job has been illegal for nearly half a century — but rather about statutes of limitations. How long after an incident of discrimination should someone be allowed to sue? The Supreme Court ruled that an employee has six months after a company’s initial pay decision to file a discrimination claim. While this was a fair reading of existing law, critics legitimately questioned whether the law itself unfairly foreclosed redress for a decision made long before an employee discovered the pay discrimination. They correctly went to Congress to fix the law, instead of demanding that courts rewrite it themselves.
But the solution is not to eliminate statutes of limitations altogether, which is essentially what the Fair Pay Act does when it restarts the litigation clock with every new paycheck. No, the proper solution is simply to codify the common law “discovery rule” for these types of cases, making clear that the statute of limitations begins to run only when the employee discovers the wrong that had been committed against her way back when — a compromise that was proposed by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison but rejected by the Senate. Instead, the new law introduces major uncertainty into business operations and gives every employee a Sword of Damocles to dangle over her employer’s balance sheet. Companies will all of a sudden be subject to decades-old discrimination claims they have no ability to defend.
At bottom, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act takes a bludgeon to an already reeling economy, acting as a stimulus only for the lawyers bringing and defending the coming avalanche of lawsuits.