Signed into law in 1963, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) forbids wage disparities based solely on gender. In E.E.O.C. v. Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit considered whether an EPA claim was sufficiently pled based on the evidence presented.

EEOC complaint

After a discrimination claim was filed by a female attorney in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s law department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began a three-year investigation into the Port Authority and its pay practices. The EEOC then filed a complaint pursuant to the EPA against the Port Authority alleging that female and male nonsupervisory attorneys working for the Port Authority received unequal pay for performing equal work. The EEOC alleged that the work was equal because the attorneys shared the same:

  • Job code,
  • Amount of required effort and skill, and
  • Working conditions.

Yet female attorneys were paid less than male attorneys.

The district court dismissed the complaint, holding that the EEOC hadn’t alleged any facts supporting a comparison of the actual job duties of the attorneys. Rather, the court found, the EEOC had relied on conclusory allegations, such as that the attorneys all had the same law degree and were performing equal work. The EEOC appealed.

Broad generalizations

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. In doing so, the appellate court clarified the pleading standard for employment discrimination claims, holding: “While a discrimination complaint need not allege facts establishing each element of a prima facie case of discrimination to survive a motion to dismiss, it must at a minimum assert nonconclusory factual matter sufficient to nudge the claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.”

An EPA claim must allege substantially equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility performed under similar conditions. The court further held that specific job content had to be pled and that broad generalizations — such as a claim that all nonsupervisory Port Authority attorneys had the same job — don’t adequately support the “substantially equal” element.

The EEOC argued that it was sufficient to plead that the comparators were all attorneys, paid under the same job code, given raises under the same maturity curve and subject to similar job requirements — including bar admission and compliance with the Professional Rules of Conduct. The Second Circuit disagreed, noting that “the complaint provides no guidance as to whether the attorneys handled complex commercial matters or minor slip-and-falls, negotiated sophisticated lease and financing arrangements or responded to employee complaints, conducted research for briefs or drafted multimillion-dollar contracts.”

The court held that, even after a three-year investigation, the EEOC hadn’t alleged a single nonconclusory fact to support its assertion that the female attorneys and their male comparators’ jobs required substantially equal skill and effort. As pled, the EEOC complaint suggested only the possibility, not the plausibility, of an EPA violation. Therefore, dismissal of the case was proper.

Clear message

The EPA’s message is clear. Employers must pay employees who are performing substantially similar work — requiring equivalent skill, effort and responsibility, and performed under similar conditions — equally and can’t discriminate based on gender. To help avoid costly litigation and establish optimal defensive positioning, be sure to maintain detailed job descriptions that account for the differences among your organization’s various positions.