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Equal Pay Act Claim Requires Show of Pay Disparity “Based on Sex” as Part of Prima Facie Case, Court Holds

Departing from other federal appeals courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held that Equal Pay Act plaintiffs must establish that the pay differential between similarly situated employees is “historically or presently based on sex” to make out a prima facie case.

In Gordon v. U.S., No. 17-1845 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 7, 2018), two female emergency room physicians employed by a Veterans Administration hospital alleged they were underpaid compared to male emergency room physicians. Their pay discrimination claim related primarily to one male physician who was hired at the same time they were hired at the same pay rate in the same position, but he received a pay increase one year after they were hired that the female plaintiffs did not receive.

To state a claim of an EPA violation, an employee must show the employer:

  • Paid employees of opposite sexes different wages;

  • For substantially equal work;

  • In jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility; and

  • That are performed under similar working conditions.

If an employee provides evidence establishing each of these elements, the burden shifts to the employer to prove the pay disparity is justified under one of four affirmative defenses: (1) a seniority system; (2) a merit system; (3) a pay system based on quantity or quality of output; or (4) any factor other than sex.

Here, the employer argued that the plaintiffs had not established a prima facie case and that, even if they had, the pay differential was justified under the “factor other than sex” affirmative defense. The Court, which hears appeals involving federal employee EPA claims, held that the plaintiff doctors must meet an additional requirement to establish their prima facie EPA violation:

To make their prima facie case, however, [the doctors] must also establish that the pay differential between the similarly situated employees is “historically or presently based on sex.”

Id. at 9-10. The Court held that the plaintiffs could not make this showing and that the employer was entitled to summary judgment on this basis alone. Notably, the Court held the employer had not introduced sufficient evidence to establish the “factor other than sex” affirmative defense. Id. at 10 n. 4.

The holding was based on a prior ruling, Yant v. United States, 588 F.3d 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2009). Judge Reyna wrote the panel decision, but also wrote separately to express the view that Yant should be overturned because the additional requirement improperly shifts the burden of proof in a manner inconsistent with the text of the EPA and Supreme Court precedent. Judge Reyna also notes that no other Circuit Court of Appeals requires this additional showing as part of the prima facie case. Id. at 17.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2018

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About this Author

F. Christopher Chrisbens, Jackson Lewis, litigation attorney, employment law, intellectual property legal counsel, OFCCP compliance lawyer
Of Counsel

F. Christopher Chrisbens is Of Counsel in the Denver, Colorado, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Over his years as a litigation attorney, manager, trainer and workplace investigator, Mr. Chrisbens has developed a diverse array of employment law skills serving employers in a variety of legal and corporate settings.

Mr. Chrisbens began his career as a litigator and appellate practitioner in Los Angeles, California, and later returned to Boulder, Colorado where he was partner in a Boulder firm practicing in the areas of commercial...

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