Documented Reorganization Aids Virginia Company’s Win In Pay Discrimination Case

Documentation of and communicating about employment-related decisions, including those pertaining to employee job duties, compensation, and changes in the workplace are important for several reasons.  Among those reasons are keeping employees informed of developments in the workplace and being positioned to explain to a court or administrative agency why things happened the way they did.  In the case of job duties, documentation is only part of the puzzle — what happens in reality matters too, and the duties actually performed are typically more important than what is written on paper.  All the better when the written documentation aligns with reality.  A recent decision from the Fourth Circuit emphasizes these points.  Lee v. Belvac Production Machinery, Inc., No. 20-1805 (4th Cir. Oct. 4, 2022) (unpublished).

Belvac Machinery, Inc. hired Shelly Lee in 2010 as an Accounting Manager who supervised three employees — a payroll specialist, an accounts receivable specialist, and an accounts payable specialist.  Lee reported to the company’s Corporate Finance Manager, who reported to the CFO.  In 2013, the company hired a male employee as Controller (formerly called Corporate Finance Manager) at a salary that was roughly double Lee’s salary in the Accounting Manager position. 

The male Controller left Belvac in September 2013, but returned in early 2016 as Director of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) reporting to the CFO.  As part of a corporate restructuring during the intervening period, Belvac changed Lee’s title from Accounting Manager to Controller.  Under the revised structure, the male FP&A Director supervised the company’s senior financial analysts (as he did previously) and Lee continued to supervise the three specialists.

In early 2017, Lee reported concerns about her pay, noting the difference between her annual salary as Controller and her predecessor’s.  The company responded by ordering an analysis of Lee’s compensation, which found that “Lee’s pay was commensurate with her duties and experience” in the Lynchburg, Virginia job market.  The company, however, awarded Lee a pay increase.  Lee complained again in November 2017, claiming that she was paid less because of her sex.  Belvac’s parent company investigated and concluded that Lee’s salary was appropriate.

Lee filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which concluded that Lee’s claims were not substantiated.  Lee then filed suit in federal court alleging multiple claims, including pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act.

Lee attempted to prove her claims by comparing her compensation as Controller to her predecessor’s.  When relying upon comparator evidence to make out a Title VII pay discrimination claim, one method an employee can use is to, among other things, show that she occupied a similar job to that of male comparators.  The comparator’s jobs must be similar in all respects, considering job duties and standards, organizational hierarchy and reporting, and the level of experience, education, and other qualifications used by the employer. 

Under the EPA, a plaintiff must show that the jobs in question require equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and similar working conditions.  “Equality under the [EPA] is a demanding threshold requirement.  It requires a comparator to have performed work virtually identical (or the apparent synonym, ‘substantially equal’) to the plaintiff’s in skill, effort, and responsibility.”

The trial court granted summary judgment in Belvac’s favor, finding that Lee did not create a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the similarity of her predecessor’s duties as Controller and her duties when she was placed in the role as part of the reorganization.  While the jobs had the same title, the male predecessor’s duties, experience, and skill in the role differed significantly from Lee’s.  Lee’s Controller role was largely the same as her Accounting Manager role, albeit with a different title, and differed greatly from the scope of Controller duties her predecessor performed.

The company “produced overwhelming and unrebutted evidence as to the complete dissimilarity between Lee’s Controller position and [her predecessor’s].  For instance, Belvac pointed to ninety-nine distinct FP&A tasks—supported by record evidence—undertaken or overseen by [the male Controller] that Lee did not assume.”  Belvac also showed that the reorganization was initiated years earlier and provided consistent explanations for the employees’ duties and roles within the company.  The male Controller, moreover, had considerably more experience than Lee.  Lee’s Controller role “was redefined and substantially limited as part of a broader restructuring.”  Lee’s predecessor performed “a significant amount of FP&A work that Lee did not” and the predecessor, but not Lee, was qualified to do that work.  Based on the record evidence, “[n]o reasonable trier of fact could find” that the Controller role performed by the two individuals was sufficiently similar under Title VII or the EPA.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed judgment in Belvac’s favor.  Lee did not establish a prima facie case under Title VII or the EPA because the company presented unrebutted evidence that the Controller role had been modified by the time Lee was placed in the role.  The job duties were not identical or even similar to the level necessary for Lee to prevail.  It was not enough for the individuals to have held the same job title — they performed different duties and Belvac successfully presented evidence of its reorganization and the realigned duties.

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