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Recent Court Rulings Help Employees Pursue Equal Pay Act Claims, Part I

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Equal Pay – Recently, two (2) different Federal Courts issued decisions that should help employees bringing Equal Pay Act claims prove that pay differentials are illegal.  The Court decisions do so by making it more difficult for employers to defend against such claims by arguing that the pay differentials in question are due to factors other than sex.  This blog addresses one of the cases, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Maryland Insurance Administration, 879 F.3d 114 (4th Cir. 2018), in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer defending against an Equal Pay Act claim by invoking the “factor other than sex” affirmative defense must prove that the factor other than sex that the defendant is alleging actually caused the pay differential, not just that the factor other than sex could have caused the pay differential.  A forthcoming blog will address the other recent Federal Court decision.

Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from paying different wages to employees of opposite sexes within an employer’s establishment “for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions.”

An employee establishes what courts call a prima facie case of discrimination under the Equal Pay Act if the employee demonstrates: (1) the defendant-employer paid different wages to an employee of the opposite sex (2) for equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility, which jobs (3) all are performed under similar working conditions.

Once an employee establishes a prima facie case, a presumption arises that the employer has committed unlawful discrimination under the Equal Pay Act.  To avoid liability for unlawful discrimination, the employer must prove that the wage differential is justified by one of four (4 affirmative defenses: (1) a seniority system; (2) a merit system; (3) a pay system based on quantity or quality of output; or (4) a disparity based on any factor other than sex.

In the Maryland Insurance Administration case, the employees established a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination.  The employer invoked the “factor other than sex” defense to liability, arguing that the qualifications, certifications and employment histories of the male employees performing work substantially equal to the work being performed by the female employees justified paying the male employees at higher rates of pay.

The Court determined that the employer had failed to prove its affirmative defense to liability.  The Court acknowledged that the factors cited by the employer could explain the wage disparity between the male and female employees.  But, the Court found that the evidence was insufficient to prove that employees’ differing qualifications, certifications, and employment histories “in fact explain(ed) the salary disparities.”  Said the Court: “as we have emphasized, a viable affirmative defense under the [Equal Pay Act] requires more than a showing that a factor other than sex could explain or may explain the salary disparity.  Instead, the [Equal Pay Act] requires that a factor other than sex, in fact, explains the salary disparity.”

If you believe you have been subjected to unlawful sex discrimination in the workplace, you should consult an experienced employment discrimination lawyer such as Benjamin King, Esquire, at Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C.  Attorney King can be reached at (603) 288-1403 or fill out our online contact form.