I wrote back in April 2010 that I thought the Houston Court of Appeals decision in Prarie View A&M v. Chatha applying the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (“Ledbetter Act”) to claims arising under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) was wrongly decided. Last month the Supreme Court of Texas agreed with me and reversed the decision.

In Prarie View A&M v. Chatha, Dr. Chatha began her employment with the University in 1987 as an associate professor. In 2003, she applied for a promotion to full professor. Initially denied the promotion, Dr. Chatha was eventually promoted to in 2004. At that time, she complained that her salary was inequitable but was told that there were no funds available for a salary adjustment. Two years later, Dr. Chatha filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and Texas Workforce Commission alleging race and nationality-based pay discrimination. Under state law, a charge of discrimination must be filed within 180 days of the discriminatory act’s occurrence. At issue was when Dr. Chatha’s pay discrimination claim “occurred”. Did the claim occur when she was initially advised of the decision in which case her claim was untimely or was each subsequent paycheck she received a separate, new act of discrimination rendering her charge of discrimination timely? 

The Houston Court of Appeals held that Dr. Chatha’s claim was timely reasoning that the federal Ledbetter Act applied to pay discrimination claims filed under state law because one of the general provisions of the TCHRA was to execute the policies of Title VII including its amendments and two federal district courts opinions had applied the Ledbetter Act to state law claims.

The Supreme Court of Texas reversed the court of appeals. The Court noted that while the federal and state laws are largely analogous and have historically be interpreted consistently, nothing required it to interpret state law identically with federal law. Additionally, the Court found no support in the plain language of the statute or its legislative history that the Texas Legislature intended amendments to Title VII be automatically incorporated into the TCHRA. Consequently, the Supreme Court held that the that Ledbetter Act did not apply to TCHRA claims and that pay discrimination claims brought under state law must generally be brought within 180 days of the date the claimant is advised of the compensation decision.

This is a more pyric victory for Texas employers than it is a meaningful one. Texas plaintiffs who desire to bring a pay discrimination claim over a decision that is older than 180 days still have a recourse. They can file those claims under federal law and avail themselves of the Ledbetter Act’s more forgiving definition of when a claim “occurs”. 

A full copy of Prarie View A&M v. Chatha is available here.

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