Professors Are Not Automatically Entitled to Same Pay

By Mark J. Swerdlin June 27, 2019

​A plaintiff who works in higher education cannot rely upon an inference that all professors generally perform equal or substantially similar work to support her wage-discrimination claim, according to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A sociology professor at Virginia State University brought suit against the university for wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She earned approximately $70,000 per year while two former university administrators, now professors in other departments, were each paid more than $100,000 per year as professors.

While the plaintiff's salary was average compared to the rest of her department, she claimed that the former university administrators made disproportionately high salaries due to their gender. The university argued that the former administrators earned salaries based on a neutral payment practice: When administrators become professors, the university pays them nine-twelfths of their previous salary because, as professors, they work nine months out of the year instead of working a full year, as administrators do. Under this practice, however, the pay for former administrators turned professors is still higher than many other professors'.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Pay Equity]

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment for the university, finding that the plaintiff failed to show that the two professors named in her claim are appropriate comparators for her position. The 4th Circuit affirmed. In doing so, the court refused to consider general similarities between university professors, instead requiring specific showings of equality and similarity.  

Under the Equal Pay Act, the plaintiff had to prove that she performed work that is substantially equal in skill, effort or responsibility as the work performed by the former administrators. However, the 4th Circuit found that she had instead relied upon general similarities between the work responsibilities of all professors. This was insufficient, as the plaintiff was required to present evidence that her position was equal to the former administrators', not that they performed roughly the same duties.

The court found the university's evidence explaining the salaries of the former administrators persuasive. Because the university presented a nondiscriminatory practice of salary assignments to former administrators, the plaintiff was obligated to prove that this explanation was merely pretext for wage discrimination based on gender. She apparently had no such evidence to present.

The court applied its analysis of the plaintiff's Equal Pay Act claim to her Title VII claim, which requires only "similar" work, and came to the same conclusion: that she had failed to prove her work was substantially similar to the former administrators' and that the university's pay practices were pretext for discrimination.

The Equal Pay Act and Title VII are powerful tools to combat bona fide wage discrimination. Because of that power, claimants under those statutes must strictly adhere to the evidentiary requirements. When they do not, courts will not accept generalized statements of similarity or bias. In the 4th Circuit, a claimant cannot prevail simply by identifying another employee in the same professional realm with a higher salary. Instead, to prove discrimination, the claimant must provide a specific showing of proof that he or she performs the same job with the same responsibilities for different pay.

Spencer v. Virginia State Univ., 4th Cir., No. 17-2453 (March 26, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Because the university demonstrated concrete evidence of a bona fide nondiscriminatory practice regarding the salaries of former administrators, the claimant's burden of proof was made significantly higher. For any employer, even outside academia, this case highlights the importance of clearly defining policies for the determination of salaries. 

Mark J. Swerdlin is a partner with Shawe Rosenthal LLP, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Baltimore. 



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