In April, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an en banc rehearing of a case decided by a three-judge panel last year that differences in past salaries don’t justify disparities in pay between male and female employees in the same role. The unanimous ruling, authored by the late Judge Stephen Reinhardt, concluded that even though the Fresno, California, school district’s pay structure was not discriminatory in intent, it perpetuated gender-based wage disparities in a manner “contrary to the text and history of the Equal Pay Act.”
Because pay gender disparities in pay may have arisen from sex discrimination, the court reasoned, a system that allows these gaps to persist throughout an employee’s career effectively functions to “perpetuate rather than eliminate the pervasive discrimination at which the Act was aimed.” The Ninth Circuit’s judgment is in keeping with a trend that has been building up over the past few years in which employers are feeling greater pressure to stop basing pay structures on salary history, due to the potential for perpetuating unfair pay gaps. Appeals courts have divided on the question, however, with the 10th and 11th Circuits also finding that salary history-based pay systems are not exempt from Equal Pay Act claims, while the Seventh and Eighth Circuits have disagreed.
A circuit court split is often a prelude to Supreme Court review of a legal question. The Fresno school district had planned to appeal the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the highest court, but had suspended that process while it attempted to reach a settlement with the plaintiff, Aileen Rizo. Now, however, the settlement talks have broken down and the district is preparing to petition the Supreme Court for review next month, Erin Mulvaney reports at the National Law Journal. That doesn’t mean the court will take the case, Mulvaney notes, but “any petition would likely fuel friend-of-the-court briefs”:
Differences in past salaries are insufficient to justify disparities in pay between male and female employees in the same role, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday. In an en banc rehearing of a case decided by a three-judge panel nearly a year ago, the court’s 11 judges unanimously ruled in favor of Aileen Rizo, a California school employee who learned in 2012 that her male counterparts were making more than she was and filed a discrimination suit under the Equal Pay Act.
The panel last year, citing a 1982 ruling by the court that said employers could use salary history information as long as they applied it reasonably, had overturned a 2015 decision by US Magistrate Judge Michael Seng, which held that the Fresno, California, school district’s pay structure perpetuates gender-based wage disparities. Monday’s opinion, authored by the late judge Stephen Reinhardt before his death last month, reaffirmed Seng’s ruling, concluding that ” allow employers to capitalize on the persistence of the wage gap and perpetuate that gap ad infinitum—would be contrary to the text and history of the Equal Pay Act, and would vitiate the very purpose for which the Act stands”:
We conclude, unhesitatingly, that “any other factor other than sex” is limited to legitimate, job-related factors such as a prospective employee’s experience, educational background, ability, or prior job performance. It is inconceivable that Congress, in an Act the primary purpose of which was to eliminate long-existing “endemic” sex-based wage disparities, would create an exception for basing new hires’ salaries on those very disparities—disparities that Congress declared are not only related to sex but caused by sex. To accept the County’s argument would be to perpetuate rather than eliminate the pervasive discrimination at which the Act was aimed.
Reinhardt’s opinion will cheer critics of salary histories, who argue that using this information to set pay enables the persistence of unjustifiable gender-based pay gaps throughout an employee’s career.