In order to prevail in an Equal Pay Act claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she was paid less than a comparable male employee. When the two employees have distinctly different job duties and responsibilities, plaintiffs may struggle to find other evidence of discrimination on the basis of sex. In a new decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia), the court concluded that female coworkers offered by the plaintiff also had different jobs than the male comparator.
In Noonan v. Consolidated Shoe Co. Inc., the plaintiff was a photographer and public relations employee who sued on the basis that a male graphic designer was paid substantially more than her. When the defendant pointed out the differences in the two employees’ jobs, the plaintiff claimed that female coworkers in the company’s marketing department were paid less than market salaries while the male employee received market pay.
The Fourth Circuit rejected this reasoning, affirming summary judgment for the defendant. The court noted that the female coworkers proffered by the plaintiff also had job duties and responsibilities that were significantly different that those of their male counterpart. Generalized statements about female workers being paid less than market do not establish an Equal Pay Act claim in the absence of comparator evidence.
This case demonstrates the importance for employers to carefully review and set pay rates based on nondiscriminatory business reasons. If two employees’ job duties substantially differ, their job descriptions should reflect the disparity. If a plaintiff can establish a legitimate comparator, the burden of proof in an Equal Pay Act claim shifts to the employer to demonstrate legitimate nondiscriminatory business reasons for the pay difference.
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