Don’t get snagged by an Equal Pay complaint
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Don’t get snagged by an Equal Pay complaint

One employer survived, one didn’t on gender discrimination lawsuits

Just because a man and a woman hold the same job title and share many of the same functions at the same company doesn’t mean that they can file a gender discrimination lawsuit.

But if there’s a dispute over Equal Pay, the employer had better be able to describe clear business reasons for the disparity.

What the courts look at in Equal Pay complaints

Two recent gender discrimination lawsuits highlight how courts look at the conditions surrounding equal-pay lawsuits and suggest a set of guidelines for avoiding liability.

A review of these cases may help you determine your company’s legal exposure.

The first case involved Equal Pay disparity between the directors of two university-affiliated therapy programs. The female director of the respiratory therapy program earned $45,000 per year, while the male director of a parallel program in physical therapy earned $90,000.

The female director filed a gender discrimination case against the university, claiming that the pay disparity was illegal. She argued that the job descriptions were almost exactly matched. The university contended that although the day-to-day operations of the programs as well as the directors’ job descriptions were similar, the man’s responsibilities were substantially different from the woman’s.

In the second case, a female trade-show specialist earned $756 per week, while her male successor earned $900. The employer argued that factors other than gender led to the Equal Pay disparity. In particular, the man had more experience and had done a better job than the woman at generating revenue.

In the first case, the woman lost her claim. But in the second case, the woman won. In each instance, the details determined the outcome.

1. The university case.

The court ruled that the university was justified in paying the man twice the woman’s salary because his job responsibilities included getting his program off probationary status and creating a graduate education program.

Saving the program and creating a new course of study affected the “skills, efforts and responsibilities” that distinguished the two program directors, said the court.

In the male director’s program, students would not be allowed to take the licensure exam if the department was not accredited. Also, the man’s department generated significant revenues that were vital for the operation of the university’s School of Allied Health Services.

The female director’s program was not on probation and its students were not at risk of losing licensure. The daily pressures faced by the female director were much less than those faced by the male.

The demands of the man’s job were greater, said the court; therefore, he deserved more pay.
The court concluded that the equal pay disparity was based on a number of legitimate factors, not gender discrimination.

2. The Trade-show case

In the second case, the court noted that the man who succeeded the woman in the role of trade-show specialist for a transportation company had more experience and a track record of generating more revenue than the woman.

But the differences in their jobs weren’t enough to justify the pay disparity, said the court. Both the man and the woman were responsible for sales, for organizing trade shows and for handling a variety of administrative functions.

In court, the company couldn’t make a strong enough case to show that there was a reason other than gender discrimination for the equal pay disparity.

In general, if a man and a woman have the same job description but disparate pay, one or more of these conditions should be present:

  • The man’s job has more demands (such as guiding a program out of its probationary period).
  • The man has a significantly higher level of education that is relevant to the work (example, he has a Ph.D. in his field, but she has only a B.A.).
  • The man has financial accountability that the woman lacks.

Cites: Deborah Cullen v. Indiana University Board of Trustees, U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, No. 02-3043, 7/29/03; Robin Lawrence v. CNF Transportation, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit, No. 02-1520, 8/11/03.

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