Acting swiftly on one of his campaign promises, President Obama today signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (S. 181). The new law will increase the number of pay discrimination claims, make them much more difficult to defend, and force employers to retain records relating to compensation decisions far longer than they have in the past. In addition, the Act creates a strong incentive for management to review any current disparities in pay or benefits between two employees who hold similar jobs, to be confident that such differences were and are based on legitimate factors rather than a discriminatory decision that may have occurred years ago.

Federal discrimination laws generally require employees to file charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) within 180 or 300 days after the alleged discrimination occurs. That deadline allows such claims to be resolved relatively quickly, while the evidence is fresh and witnesses are available. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), the U.S. Supreme Court, emphasizing the importance of the deadline, held that the period for challenging pay discrimination starts to run when an employer first makes the allegedly discriminatory decision, not each and every time that the employee later feels the effect of such a decision by receiving a paycheck.

The Ledbetter Act overturns that approach. The period for filing a charge now starts to run not only when an allegedly discriminatory compensation decision or practice is first adopted, but also each time that an individual becomes subject to or affected by application of such a decision or practice, “including each time wages, benefits, or other compensation is paid, resulting in whole or in part from such a decision or practice.” The new law, which takes effect today and retroactively applies to any claim filed since the Ledbetter case was decided, amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and thus applies to compensation discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, color, religion, age, and disability.

The new law creates substantial challenges for employers, in that they will now be forced to reconstruct and defend compensation decisions made years ago by persons likely to have forgotten what happened – even assuming that such witnesses are still alive and can be found. For that reason, employers now have a strong incentive to document any and all decisions that may affect compensation – such as why they paid a new employee more than an existing one, or why a supervisor gave one employee a better review than another – and to retain all such records much longer than is legally required. Finally, employers may want to evaluate any current disparities in pay and compensation between employees who hold the same job in order to be able to defend such differences as legitimate.

Congress is soon expected to place even greater emphasis on pay discrimination by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was approved by the House of Representatives earlier this month but has not yet been voted on in the Senate. That law would allow plaintiffs bringing Equal Pay Act claims to recover unlimited compensatory and punitive damages, make it far easier for them to bring class actions, and prohibit employers from taking action against most employees because they have asked about, discussed, or disclosed any employee’s wages.