7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Title VII Pay Discrimination and Equal Pay Act Claims

On November 30, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that she was paid substantially less than her male colleague, despite taking on twice the responsibility, in violation of the Equal Pay Act ("EPA") and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended ("Title VII").  Lauderdale v. Illinois Department of Human Services, et al., No. 16-3830 (7th Cir. 11/30/2017).  The EPA and Title VII both prohibit employers from paying an employee less based on sex.  The 7th Circuit concluded that the pay discrepancy in this case was not based on sex.

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant violated the EPA when it paid her less than her male co-worker.  The EPA prohibits an employer from discriminating in pay between employees on the basis of sex.  To establish an EPA claim, an employee must demonstrate a difference in pay for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions.  If these requirements are met, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to prove that a neutral factor explains the salary discrepancy.  There are four affirmative defenses under the EPA, where payment is made pursuant to: (1) a seniority system; (2) a merit system; or (3) a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; and (4) a differential based on any other factor besides sex.  There was no question in this case that the plaintiff was paid less for equal work.  However, the defendant successfully argued that the pay discrepancy was based on three non-discriminatory factors: (1) Illinois' CMS Pay Plan; (2) the plaintiff's and her co-worker's prior salaries; and (3) budget concerns.  Based on this evidence, no reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff was paid less because of her sex. 

The plaintiff also claimed that the alleged sex discrimination violated Title VII, which makes pay discrimination unlawful.  To prove a Title VII sex discrimination claim, a plaintiff must establish that: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) her job performance met the employer's legitimate expectations; (3) she was subjected to adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated male employees were treated more favorably.  If these elements are met, the employer must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for paying the plaintiff less.  Unlike EPA claims, the burden of proof remains with the plaintiff in Title VII claims.  If the employer articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the pay discrepancy, the plaintiff must prove that the employer's proffered reason is just pretext for sex discrimination.  An employee can prove pretext by showing that the employer's proffered reason was: (1) factually baseless; (2) not the employer's real reason; or (3) insufficient to motive the employment action.  In this case, the plaintiff failed to provide enough evidence to convince a reasonable jury that the defendant was lying when it claimed that the salary decision was based on budget concerns.