The Lawletter Vol 41 No 5
Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Under the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), no covered employer shall discriminate on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees at a rate less than the rate paid to employees of the opposite sex for equal work. In Hesterberg v. Tyson Foods, Inc., Case No. 5:14-CV-05382, 2016 WL 483017 (W.D. Ark. signed Feb. 5, 2016), the court held that to establish a prima facie claim for damages under the Equal Pay Act, the complaining party must show by a preponderance of the evidence that "(1) she was paid less than a male employed in the same establishment, (2) for work on jobs requiring skill, effort and responsibility, (3) which were performed under similar working conditions." Id. at *5. The employer will be entitled to summary judgment and dismissal of the equal pay suit if it can show that any pay differential between the plaintiff and her male counterpart is explained by a statutory defense such as a merit system or some excuse other than sex.
The plaintiff in the case alleged that her immediate supervisor, who was male, had total discretionary authority over the amount of bonuses paid and percentage raises given to her and her male counterparts and that his decisions regarding these forms of compensation were largely subjective. She argued that her comparatively lower bonuses and percentage raises in the years in question were the result of the males' being treated more favorably. Recognizing that employers can "easily circumvent the Equal Pay Act by relying substantially on bonuses to compensate employees," id. at *6, the court denied the employer's motion for summary judgment. Genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the employer's merit system, on which the employer relied to justify the pay differential in this case, had been implemented at the company in a truly nondiscriminatory way.