In the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Rizo v. Yovino, key employer-side groups have expressed support for U.S. Supreme Court review to determine whether employers who rely on prior salary to set starting pay can continue to do so consistent with the federal Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1) (“EPA”).
The EPA prohibits sex-based wage differentials between men and women who perform equal work, but allows employers to justify wage differentials even between such employees based on seniority, merit, production, or “any other factor other than sex.” The Ninth Circuit’s recent en banc decision in Rizo held that “prior salary alone or in combination with other factors cannot justify a wage differential” because prior salary is not a “factor other than sex.” 887 F.3d 453, 456 (9th Cir. 2018). The Ninth Circuit reasoned that a “factor other than sex” must be “job-related,” and thus rejected the defendant employer’s exclusive reliance on prior salary as a benchmark against which to set starting pay for new hires. The Court, however, left open the possibility that prior salary could permissibly “play a role in the course of an individualized salary negotiation.” Id. at 461. (For a comprehensive analysis of the Rizo decision, see Can Prior Pay Inform a New Hire’s Salary? (Daily Journal, May 11, 2018)).
On August 30, 2018, the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, Jim Yovino, filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Rizo. The petition argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should grant review because the Circuit Courts of Appeal diverge on whether prior salary is a “factor other than sex” (see, e.g., Wernsing v. Dep’t of Human Servs., State of Illinois, 427 F.3d 466, 469 (7th Cir. 2005)) and because prior salary is a “factor other than sex” under a plain reading of the EPA.
Since Yovino’s petition for writ of certiorari, several business groups have filed amici curiae briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the case. The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America (Chamber) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently filed a brief for amici curiae in support of Yovino. The Chamber is the world’s largest business federation, representing the interests of 300,000 members and over three million companies and professional organizations. SHRM is the world’s largest human resources professional society, representing 300,000 members in more than 165 countries. Representing strong business interests, the amici brief asserts that the question of whether employers can rely on prior salary history in setting workers’ wages “is of extraordinary significance.” The amici brief argues that the Rizo decision deepens a circuit split on the legality of the widely-used and useful employment practice of relying on prior salary, which is legal in most jurisdictions and is a facially sex-neutral practice. The Chamber and SHRM also argue that the Ninth Circuit’s “tortured reading of the EPA’s catchall defense” could be read to call into question other legitimate and sex-neutral practices that rely on objective information, such as individualized negotiations and competitive salary bidding.
The Center for Workplace Compliance (CWC) and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Legal Center also filed a brief for amici curiae in support of Yovino’s petition. The CWC, whose membership includes 240 major U.S. corporations, is the nation’s largest nonprofit association of employers dedicated exclusively to ensuring compliance with fair employment and other workplace requirements. The NFIB is the nation’s leading small business association, with offices across the country. The CWC and NFIB argue that the “Ninth Circuit’s decision  rests on a legally flawed premise—that an employer has an affirmative obligation under the EPA to eliminate disparities in pay, even when those disparities are caused by gender-neutral compensation policies.” The amici brief asserts that review of the Rizo decision is necessary to “resolve issues of substantial importance to the employer community,” and that permitting the decision to stand “will have a profound, largely negative, impact on employers nationwide.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will likely issue a decision on the petition for writ of certiorari later this year. Until then, it remains unclear whether Rizo will remain the guiding precedent in the Ninth Circuit. For employers operating in California, Rizo may not prompt significant changes given that the California Equal Pay Act separately provides that “prior salary shall not, by itself, justify any disparity in compensation.” But employers elsewhere in the Ninth Circuit will need to evaluate their pay practices in light of Rizo unless and until it is overruled. Experienced counsel can assist employers in navigating these complex issues.