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Fourth Circuit Rejects Professor’s Pay Discrimination Claim

On March 18, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment to Virginia State University, rejecting a sociology professor’s claims that she was paid less than two male colleagues because she is a woman. The Court agreed with Senior District Court Judge Henry Hudson that the disparity in pay was the result of differences in job responsibilities, as well as the fact that the men had both been former University administrators. Spencer v. Virginia State University, et. al, No. 17-2453 (4th Cir. 2019).

Spencer is a sociology professor at VSU and was paid about $70,000 annually. She alleged that two male counterparts, each of whom were also full professors in the Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice, were paid over $100,000 annually, and that this difference in pay was due to her sex. Spencer filed suit under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII, but Judge Hudson dismissed her claims on summary judgement. Spencer then appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

In affirming the grant of summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit noted that a finding of pay discrimination under the Equal Pay Act required Spencer to show that the men “performed equal work on jobs requiring equal skill effort and responsibility … under similar working conditions.” The court ruled that Spencer could not meet this burden. The male comparators worked in different departments, taught more graduate courses, supervised graduate dissertations, and worked more hours per week. As a result, Spencer could not meet her burden of showing that she and her comparators had equal jobs, “not just that they all performed vaguely related tasks using nominally related skills.”

The Fourth Circuit also found that, even if Spencer had met her burden, her EPA claim failed because VSU established that the salary difference was based on a “a factor other than sex.” The University presented undisputed evidence that it generally paid former administrators who became professors 75% of their administrator salary. This policy was based on the rationale that professors work nine months out of the year, while administrators work year-round. The comparators identified by Spencer were undisputedly former administrators; therefore, their teaching salary was determined by their former pay as administrators.

The Court quickly disposed of Spencer’s Title VII pay discrimination claim as well. Although the standard for proving paying discrimination under Title VII is somewhat easier than it is under the EPA (requiring a showing that the compared jobs be “similar” rather than “equal”), the same facts that doomed Spencer’s EPA claim were fatal to the Title VII claim. The Fourth Circuit found that Spencer has failed to establish the she and her proposed comparators were “similarly situated in all respects,” and therefore affirmed Judge Hudson’s grant of summary judgment to the University.

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