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High court limits bias suits over pay

Evidence must be recent, justices say

WASHINGTON -- In a setback for employees claiming job bias, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that they could not rely on old evidence showing that they have long been paid less than co-workers to argue that they are discriminated against now.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices said federal civil rights law requires proof of a "discrete act of discrimination" in the 180 days before a suit is filed. A claim cannot rely on earlier pay decisions that shortchanged a black, female, or disabled worker, the court said.

The ruling threw out a pay discrimination claim brought by a woman who for nearly 20 years was the lone female supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. She sued the company in 1998 and showed that she was being paid 15 percent to 40 percent less than the men who held the same job.

A jury sided with her and awarded her back pay, but the Supreme Court agreed with the company that her suit should have been thrown out at the start because it relied on evidence of discrimination in the 1980s .

Speaking for the court, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said Congress set a "short deadline" for employees to complain about job discrimination so that there could be a "prompt resolution" of the matter. It is very hard to decide whether supervisors acted wrongly years earlier in making decisions about pay and benefits, he said.

He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Bush's first appointee, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg urged Congress to change the law. She said most employees do not know the pay of all their co-workers, and may learn only belatedly that they have been shortchanged for decades.