Employers can now better prepare defenses to claims under the Equal Pay Act

In Brauer v. Curators of Univ. of Mo., a nurse sued her employer under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, claiming she was paid less than a male who performed substantially similar work under similar working conditions. At trial, the lower court instructed the jury under the “business judgment” rule that it must not deliver a verdict for the employee just because the jury disagreed with the employer’s decision. This instruction is frequently given to juries considering Title VII discrimination claims. The nurse appealed, claiming that this jury instruction was inapplicable in an Equal Pay Act case.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the nurse, holding that under the Equal Pay Act, once an employee identifies a wage gap between her and a male counterpart, the employer is strictly liable unless it convinces the jury that any pay discrepancy is due to any of four reasons: (1) a seniority system, (2) a merit system, (3) a pay system based on quality or quantity of output, or (4) any factor other than sex. The business judgment rule was not applicable, according to the court. 

This ruling highlights an employer’s burden in these types of cases, and underscores the need for employers to carefully examine their compensation structures. In particular, employers should carefully scrutinize discrepancies in pay between men and women performing similar jobs. If such discrepancies exist, then the employer should further examine whether the difference can be explained via one (or more) of the four defenses identified by the Court.