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Fourth Circuit Applies ‘Virtually Identical' Standard to Pay Discrimination Claim

    Client Alerts
  • March 27, 2019

Employees who believe they have been paid less based on their gender have two federal legal remedies. They can pursue claims under Title VII and under the Equal Pay Act (EPA). While the two laws have somewhat different legal standards, both require the plaintiff to demonstrate that she was paid less than comparator males for essentially the same work. Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) upheld a robust interpretation of this requirement, rejecting comparators who appeared to have different jobs and backgrounds from the plaintiff.               

In Spencer v. Virginia State Univ., the plaintiff was a female professor who sued, claiming that two male professors made roughly 40 percent more than her. The university noted that the two alleged comparators both worked in different departments from the plaintiff, taught more graduate-level courses, and worked more hours than her. The defendant also noted that both comparators were former university administrators, who are typically paid more after returning to teaching positions. The district court agreed, dismissing the pay claims.

The Fourth Circuit also agreed, affirming summary judgment for the defendant. The court noted that plaintiffs in EPA claims must show that their work is “virtually identical” to that of the alleged comparators. Even under Title VII, the plaintiff still has the burden of demonstrating that the work is closely similar. In this case, the university was able to show business reasons other than sex for the pay disparity. The court also noted that the plaintiff picked two of the highest paid professors at Virginia State as comparators. She may have been better served by alleging bias in comparison to somewhat lower paid but more comparable colleagues.

Even though the Fourth Circuit has become more plaintiff-friendly in recent years, the court still applies a relatively strict standard of proof when reviewing pay disparity actions. Employers that can show clear business reasons as to why compensation is structured at different levels have a substantial chance of prevailing against pay bias claims.