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Court Says Salary System Not Sex-Neutral Because Bias Possible in Disparate Wages

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A male Fulton County, Ga., community development specialist sufficiently alleged an Equal Pay Act claim because a female manager with similar job responsibilities was paid a higher salary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held Feb. 15 (Edwards v. Fulton Cnty., 11th Cir., No. 11-14751, unpublished opinion 2/15/13).

Ronald Edwards can advance his Equal Pay Act claim, the appeals court decided, because the county's salary system did not explain fully the difference in pay.

The court found that Edwards also stated a viable claim against County Manager Thomas Andrews because he declined to raise Edwards's pay after county officials requested that his pay be raised to match his responsibilities.

Judges Gerald B. Tjoflat, Emmett R. Cox, and Donald W. Molloy joined in the unpublished opinion, reversing a lower court's grant of summary judgment to the county defendants on Edwards's EPA claim. 

Claims Compensation Disparity Discriminatory

The county pays salaried employees according to a “decision-band” method, the court explained, that classifies employees' jobs according to each position's decisionmaking authority, job complexity, and supervisory responsibilities. Each position is then assigned a salary range based on its decision-band classification.

Edwards's decision-band classification as a community development specialist was C43. Between 1999 and 2007, he began taking on responsibilities beyond his pay grade, including supervising inspectors and managing housing programs.

Edwards complained to his supervisors that his pay did not reflect his responsibilities, and they asked Andrews to increase Edwards's pay. The county never did anything in response.

In January 2007, Carolyn Stewart began working as a community development specialist. She initially was paid a salary in the C43 range, but she was promoted later that month to the C52 position of community development manager. Stewart in this position managed three programs for the county and supervised one employee.

Edwards filed a grievance with the county, claiming that he had been underpaid, since his position should have been reclassified when he took on extra responsibilities in 1999. The county's grievance review committee denied Edwards's grievance as untimely.

In December 2007, Edwards sued the county and Andrews, alleging, among other things, violations of the EPA. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted summary judgment to the defendants on Edward's equal pay claim, and he appealed. 

Supervisors Confirm Substantial Equality of Jobs

The appeals court found that the defendants failed to show the absence of an issue of fact on Edwards's EPA claim.

To establish a prima facie case, Edwards needed to show that the county paid an employee of the opposite sex more for work requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, the court explained. It added that determining whether an employee qualifies as a comparator depends on the primary duties of each job instead of formal job titles or descriptions.

A reasonable juror could find the duties performed by Edwards and Stewart to be substantially equal, the court decided.

Stewart testified that Edwards's and her job duties “were of equal complexity and difficulty,” and that he performed “the same job duties and functions that [she] performed in that [their] jobs involved the same responsibilities and required the same effort,” the court said.

The court found that other evidence corroborated Stewart's statements: one of Edwards's supervisors said Edwards performed the work of a C52-level manager; a department chart gave Edwards the same level of managerial responsibility as assumed by Stewart; two county officials requested salary increases for Edwards because his position included managerial responsibilities; and another county official stated in an email that the department had “admitted to working Ronald Edwards out of classification without compensation.”

“While Edwards and Stewart managed a slightly different number of programs, supervised a slightly different number of employees with different decision-band classifications, and had slightly different job titles, these facts fail to convince us that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Edwards, no genuine issue of material fact existed as to the substantial equality of the two jobs,” the court said. 

Salary System Defense Did Not Explain Disparity

The county defendants also did not show an absence of disputed material fact as to their affirmative “factor other than sex” defense, the appeals court decided.

The court explained that an employer may defend an EPA claim by showing that disparate salaries actually were based on a factor other than sex.

The county and Andrews argued that Edwards's pay and Stewart's pay were determined by a gender-neutral, decision-band classification system, but the appeals court concluded that the evidence established an issue of fact as to whether the disparity was solely attributable to the neutral system.

As Edwards argued, Andrews could have approved a raise without reclassifying his position and Andrews failed to do so. Two county officials requested a salary raise on Edwards's behalf, the court noted, and Andrews acknowledged to the court that he could have approved an employee's raise in pay.

“If Andrews could have approved a raise despite the decision-band system and did not,” the court said, “the Defendants have not fully attributed the pay disparity between Edwards's and Stewart's salaries to the system.”

Clarence Cuthpert Jr. in Atlanta and Deborah Wakefield in Smyrna, Ga., represented Edwards. Sandy R. Burney, Kaye Woodard Burwell, Nwakaego Nkumeh, and R. David Ware of the county attorney's office in Atlanta represented the county defendants.

By Anne A. Marchessault


Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Ronald_Edwards_v_Fulton_County_Georgia_et_al_Docket_No_1114751_11.

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