Seyfarth Synopsis: In an Equal Pay Act collective action lawsuit brought by female school crossing guards against the City of New York, who alleged they were paid less than male traffic enforcement agents, a federal district court in New York recently granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment, finding that significant differences between the two positions warranted the pay differential.

For employers facing Equal Pay Act claims relative to compensation differences for two similar but unique positions, this ruling provides a blueprint for attacking such claims.

Case Background

In Miller v. City of New York, No. 15 Civ. 7563, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73238 (S.D.N.Y. May 1, 2018), female New York City school crossing guards alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), and New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), arguing they were paid less than traffic enforcement agents, even though they claimed to do substantially the same work. Id. at *1-3. Approximately 96% of the school crossing guards are female, while 56% of the traffic enforcement agents are male.

At the time that the case was filed, school crossing guards were paid at an hourly rate ranging between $11.79 and $14.40 per hour, while traffic enforcement agents received an annual salary ranging from $33,751 to $40,930 per year, or approximately $16.16 to $19.60 per hour. Id. at *4. School crossing guards do not sit for a civil service examination or undergo psychological testing, do not have an educational requirement or need to possess a driver’s license, do not enforce traffic regulations, do not issue tickets or carry radios, and undergo one week of training. Traffic enforcement agents direct traffic, prepare and issue paper and electronic summonses, testify at administrative hearings and in court, and operate radios and other electronic equipment.

In October 2016, the Court conditionally certified a collective action on Plaintiffs’ EPA claim and also certified class claims under Rule 23 on Plaintiffs’ NYSHRL and NYCHRL claims. Id. at *1. Both classes were defined as female employees who are or were employed as school crossing guards from September 2012 through December 2016. Approximately 1,600 school crossing guards opted-in to the EPA collective action, and the NYSHRL and NYCHRL classes consisted of over 2,000 individuals. Thereafter, the City for New York moved for summary judgment on all claims.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment on all of the claims. First, regarding the EPA claim, the Court held that the stark differences in training, job requirements, and job responsibilities between traffic enforcement agents school crossing guards warranted summary judgment. Id. at *8. In support of its finding, the Court noted that traffic enforcement agents receive nearly ten times more training than school crossing guards, strongly suggesting the two positions require divergent skill levels. Further, traffic enforcement agents are full-time employees that can be required to work nights, weekends, and overtime, while school crossing guards are part-time employees who work no more than five hours per day, primarily during school hours. Plaintiffs argued that that both school crossing guards and traffic enforcement agents direct the flow of pedestrians and traffic, but the Court rejected this assertion as overly broad and not indicative of the actual job content. Accordingly, the Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment on the EPA claim.

Turning to the New York State Law Human Rights claim, the Court explained that discrimination claims under the NYSHRL are analyzed identically to claims brought under Title VII. Id. at *12. To establish a case of disparate pay under Title VII, a plaintiff must show: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was paid less than similarly situated non-members of her protected class; and (3) evidence of discriminatory animus. Id. (citation omitted). The Court found that Plaintiffs failed to meet the second element since female school crossing guards and male traffic enforcement agents were not similarly situated due to a myriad of factors, such as education, training, job requirements, job responsibilities, hours worked, and working conditions. Id. at *13. Accordingly, since no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiffs established a prima facie case under the NYSHRL, the Court granted summary judgment for the employer.

Finally, the Court analyzed Plaintiffs’ New York City Human Rights claim, noting that under New York City law, an employer may not discriminate in terms of compensation based on an employee’s gender. The Court explained that in order to succeed on their claim, Plaintiffs must identify appropriate comparators and present a sufficiently developed record from which a jury could conclude that the comparators received preferential treatment. Id. at *15 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to offer any proof of discriminatory animus, and there was no evidence in the record of a discriminatory motive underlying the disparate pay rates. Plaintiffs also argued there was a discriminatory impact, but the Court noted that Plaintiffs failed to allege this theory in their First Amended Complaint. Accordingly, the Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

Equal Pay Act collective actions and state law class claims relative to gender pay are on the rise, and employers absolutely need to take notice. For employers who are confronted with gender pay class actions involving wage comparisons for similar but unique positions, this ruling provides an excellent framework on how to defeat such claims by highlighting differences in areas such as job duties, education and training requirements. Nonetheless, the best way to avoid gender pay claims is to implement non-discriminatory pay practices, and make efforts to ensure that women and other members of protected classes are fairly and equally compensated.