In an unpublished opinion, a unanimous panel from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to employers in South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) provided some great insight into possible defenses against an Equal Pay Act (EPA) claim. Because this is just an unpublished opinion, it’s not binding precedent.
Shelly Ann Lee filed a complaint alleging her former employer, Belvac Production Machinery, Inc., paid her less as its controller than it did her predecessor, Paul DiTomasso. She claimed the pay disparity was because of her sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act (EPA).
Lee further alleged that Belvac retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity, which is also in violation of Title VII and the EPA. The district court granted Belvac’s motion for summary judgment (dismissal without a trial), and Lee appealed.
Equal Work for Equal Pay
To establish a prima facie (minimally sufficient) case under the EPA, an employee must demonstrate:
- The employer paid different wages to an employee of the opposite sex;
- For equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility; and
- All jobs were performed under similar working conditions.
Under this standard, Lee had to show that she and DiTomasso had “virtually identical jobs,” which required more than a showing that they held the same title and had the same general responsibilities.
Once an employee establishes a prima facie case of discrimination under the EPA, the burdens of production and persuasion shift to the employer to show that the wage differential was justified by one of the statutory defenses. These defenses are: “(i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any factor other than sex.”
The 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court that Lee and DiTomasso didn’t hold the same position at Belvac. It found overwhelming evidence that established he performed different duties as controller than she did. The court explained that sharing a job title and job description didn’t mean they performed substantially equal work.
The 4th Circuit didn’t stop with a superficial analysis that the two held the same job title, however. Instead, it focused on whether her job required equal skill, effort, and responsibility as the job held by DiTomasso.
The court ruled that Lee didn’t present enough evidence to conclude that her position at Belvac was sufficiently similar to DiTomasso’s. In addition, the 4th Circuit also found the district court correctly determined that Lee failed to establish a prima facie case of sex-based wage discrimination for her EPA claim.
Lessons for Employers
An EPA claim generally puts the burden of proof on the employer because it must show that there is no pay discrimination for jobs requiring equal work. With that in mind, and as the 4th Circuit pointed out, an employer should review questioned jobs to determine the actual duties and responsibilities of a position beyond the superficial title.
A successful EPA defense is possible when an employer can show that two jobs with the same title require different skills, effort, and responsibilities that aren’t based on sex.