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White Cops Get New Bite at the Equal-Pay Apple

CHICAGO (CN) - A court will decide whether a police department discriminated by welcoming a black officer back into the fold without a catch after he left the force, and not giving three white officers the same benefit, the 7th Circuit ruled.

The three white officers - Kevin Groesch, Greg Shaffer and Scott Allin - all left the Springfield, Ill., police department for more than three months in the late 1980s. At the time, former officers seeking re-employment had to go through the hiring process from the beginning.

After spending years on a waiting list, they finally returned to the force, but were stripped of their former titles and pay grades.

Later they learned that a black officer had a different experience. Donald Schluter resigned in 1999 and applied for reemployment over six months later. Rather than having to start from scratch, Schluter met with an alderman and the city soon enacted the "Schluter Ordinance," which allowed him to dodge the formal hiring process and return to work at his former pay grade.

The local police union filed suit against Springfield and Officer Schluter, calling the ordinance unconstitutional, unreasonable, discriminatory and an abuse of discretion. Though the state court found in favor of the union, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed, ruling that the union lacked standing to bring the suit.

Groesch, Shaffer and Allin then wrote a letter to the Springfield chief of police requesting equal treatment and credit for their earlier service in the department. The request was ignored.

The trio's subsequent state-court claims were dismissed Nov. 10, 2003, because the statue of limitations had lapsed.

An Illinois federal judge finally sided with the plaintiffs in 2004, relying on the "paycheck accrual" rule for determining the claims' timeliness. Paycheck accrual treats each paycheck "resulting from the original discriminatory act as a separate cause of action triggering its own statute of limitations," the 7th Circuit's decision explains.

But in 2007, the Supreme Court rejected paycheck accrual in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. In light of that ruling, the District Court immediately granted summary judgment for the Springfield, finding that plaintiffs had missed the 300-day filing period.

After Congress interceded and passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, however, the officers got another bite at the apple. The act formally resets the statute of limitations for equal-pay lawsuits with every discriminatory paycheck. It also has retroactive application to any lawsuit pending since May 28, 2007, the day before the Supreme Court ruling.

Springfield argued on appeal that sex discrimination should be treated differently from race discrimination under the act, but the 7th Circuit disagreed and ruled for the officers on Monday.

"In the absence of any clearer directive, we believe the best course is to treat the Ledbetter Act as removing the Ledbetter decision as an obstacle to following our earlier precedents, which recognized the paycheck accrual rule for all allegations of unlawful discrimination in employee compensations," Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court.

But res judicata bars Groesch, Shaffer and Allin from pursuing claims over conduct that occurred before the state court's final 2003 decision, Hamilton affirmed.

The 7th Circuit explicitly noted that the decision only addressed the statue-of-limitations aspect of the case, not the merits of the discrimination claim.

"We should not be understood as opening the door to endless re-litigation of allegedly discriminatory decisions that affect compensation for many years," the three-judge panel explained.

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