A recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals offers employers guidance on pay equity claims under the Equal Pay Act (EPA).

In Spencer v. Virginia State University, a sociology professor claimed she was paid less than two male professors in different departments who previously worked as administrators. The University has a policy of paying former administrators who become professors a proportion of their administrative salaries, which the University said was the reason for the pay difference.

The Fourth Circuit rejected the professor's attempts to show equality through common tasks such as preparing syllabi and lessons, teaching, and grading. Noting that these are responsibilities of professionals ranging from middle school teachers to law school professors, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that plaintiffs proceeding under the EPA may not rely upon broad generalizations to establish that the work is equal. It is particularly difficult to show equality between different departments in the higher education context.

Even if the professor could have shown equality of work with the two male comparators, the Fourth Circuit found the University proved that the difference in salary was due to a factor other than sex-- its proportionate pay policy--which is an affirmative defense available under the EPA. Likewise, the court also accepted the proportionate pay policy as the University's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the wage gap and upheld dismissal of the professor's Title VII claims. Interestingly, the Court noted that even if the University improperly applied this policy it would still provide a reason for the pay disparity that is not based on sex--which is quite helpful for employers.

This case shows the importance of employers actually having a reason that explains a pay disparity. This case also shows that the Fourth Circuit will not question whether the reason is rational, wise, or well-considered--only whether it did in fact explain the wage gap.