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On December 14, 2016, Hawks Quindel’s attorneys prevailed in an Equal Pay Act lawsuit on behalf of their client, a female health insurance account executive paid less than her male colleague throughout her employment with Unity Health. The Federal Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from paying employees of different sexes who perform the same work different wages unless the employer can show a legal reason for the pay disparity. Lenore O’Brien, represented by Hawks Quindel attorneys Nicholas E. Fairweather and Caitlin M. Madden, prevailed in her trial before Judge Peterson and was awarded back pay and penalties as a result of Unity’s failure to pay her the same salary as her male comparator.

Ms. O’Brien was hired by Unity in the spring of 2009, within a few weeks of a male employee paid a higher salary to perform the same job. Throughout her employment, Ms. O’Brien consistently met and exceeded her sales goals and expectations. Despite this, whenever Ms. O’Brien asked that her salary be increased to the same level as her male counterpart, she was denied.

Ms. O’Brien filed suit alleging that Unity’s actions violated the Equal Pay Act. Unity raised three defenses: that Ms. O’Brien was less experienced than her male counterpart, that Unity’s failure to equalize her pay was due to Unity’s decision not to award any raises to individuals at her position, and that Ms. O’Brien was a less consistent performer.

Judge Peterson rejected Unity’s second defense as a matter of law, and noted that under the Equal Pay Act, the employee does not have to show that the pay difference was due to intentional discriminatory intent. Instead, once it is demonstrated that two employees of different sexes perform the same job and are paid different wages, the employer must show a non-discriminatory reason for a pay disparity. Unity’s decision to stop giving either employee raises “simply locked in past pay discrepancies” and did not excuse Unity for paying a female employee less than her male colleague.

At trial, Unity had to prove that its two remaining defenses – experience and consistency – were the actual reason that Ms. O’Brien was paid less, not just a possible explanation. Unity first argued that Ms. O’Brien’s male colleague had more experience selling health care than Ms. O’Brien when he was hired, and that he would always have more experience, meaning he should always be paid more than Ms. O’Brien. Judge Peterson rejected this defense, finding that Unity did not meet its burden to show that “experience” was the actual reason Ms. O’Brien was paid less.

Judge Peterson also dismissed Unity’s “consistency” defense. While Unity’s witnesses testified that they had thought Ms. O’Brien a less consistent performer than her higher-paid male counterpart, Ms. O’Brien’s performance reviews from her employment were consistently at or above standards, and she met and exceeded her sales goals. Given this evidence, Judge Peterson found Unity failed to prove that lack of consistency was the actual reason for the pay disparity.

The statute of limitations under the Equal Pay Act can be extended to three years if the employee demonstrates that the employer’s violation was willful. Judge Peterson found Unity’s to be a willful violation of the Equal Pay Act, because Ms. O’Brien had constantly raised the issue of her pay disparity with Unity and they had refused to remedy it. Judge Peterson also awarded liquidated damages available under the Equal Pay Act. Ms. O’Brien was awarded double the difference between her salary and her male comparator’s for the three-year statutory period, plus all attorneys’ fees and costs.

Large class action Equal Pay Act cases have recently shined a light on the continuing problem of pay inequality in the workplace. (See Attorney Madden’s blog post on this issue.) Equal pay for equal work is the law of the land in the United States, as made clear by Judge Peterson’s decision in this case.

Caitlin Madden

Associate at Hawks Quindel, S.C.
Caitlin Madden is an associate attorney in Hawks Quindel’s Madison, Wisconsin office, where she represents employees in wage and hour litigation and employment discrimination. A former elementary school teacher, she is passionate about using the law to help individuals who are facing overwhelming challenges.