Teachable Moment on Equal Pay Act and Title VII as Fourth Circuit Rejects Claim that Professors Perform “Equal” or “Similar” Work

The Fourth Circuit recently issued a decision discussing whether a university professor established pay-related claims under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.  This case has important implications for professional occupations where complainants seek to compare themselves to their colleagues for purposes of alleging pay discrimination.

Zoe Spencer, a sociology professor at Virginia State University (“VSU”), sued her employer for allegedly paying her less than two male professors because she is a woman.  The district court granted summary judgment, and plaintiff appealed to the Fourth Circuit.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision because (1) plaintiff failed to present evidence that creates a genuine issue of material fact that the two male professors are appropriate comparators; and (2) in any event, unrebutted evidence shows that the VSU based the two male professors’ higher pay on their prior service as VSU administrators, not their sex.

Regarding the Equal Pay Act claim, the Court concluded that plaintiff failed to establish that she and the two male professors performed “virtually identical” or “substantially equal” work requiring “equal skill, effort, and responsibility.”  The Court rejected plaintiff’s attempt to lump the work of all professors together based on “broad generalizations at a high level of abstraction.”  Plaintiff argued that all VSU professors perform equal work because they all perform the same essential tasks (i.e. instructing students, preparing lessons, and inputting grades) which require the same skills (i.e. studying, presenting, and discussing).  But the Court noted that “[p]rofessors are not interchangeable like widgets” and VSU’s salary decisions account for the differences in skill and responsibility attendant to different jobs.  In fact, the Court observed several “concrete differences” in the work performed by plaintiff and the two male professors, such as working in different departments, teaching different class levels, and working a different numbers of hours on a weekly basis.  While the Court noted that the Equal Pay Act could apply in higher education, “[i]n that context—one where the work is an exercise in intellectual creativity that can be judged only according to intricate, field-specific, and often subjective criteria—[plaintiff] must provide the court with more than broad generalities to meet her burden.”

But even if plaintiff could show that she and the two male professors performed equal work, VSU would still defeat her claim because it provided evidence that the salary difference was based on a “factor other than sex.”  It was undisputed that the salary difference between Spencer and the two male professors was based on VSU setting the two male professors’ pay at 75% of their prior salaries as administrators, which was VSU’s general practice for compensating former administrators who become professors.

The Court decided the Title VII claim in a similar fashion.  Even though Title VII’s “similarity” requirement is arguably less demanding than the Equal Pay Act’s “equality” requirement, plaintiff’s “broad generalizations cannot even show sufficient similarity to meet her burden under Title VII.”  Further, VSU satisfied its requirement to proffer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanation for the salary difference based on its practice of paying former administrators 75% of their prior salaries.  Finally, plaintiff did not show pretext because she did not produce evidence that VSU used the policy to pay men more than women.

The Fourth Circuit’s Spencer decision is sure to be cited in Equal Pay Act and Title VII cases involving professors and other professionals nationwide.  Plaintiffs may seek to cabin the decision to academic professionals.  However, this case could have broad applications to many professional environments where employees are highly specialized and cannot be categorized as “widgets.”