KING v. ACOSTA SALES AND MARKETING (March 13, 2012)

Susan King was employed as a business manager for Acosta Sales and Marketing, a food broker, for six years. When she quit, she brought suit against her former employer, alleging a hostile work environment for women in violation of Title VII and unequal pay for women in violation of Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. Judge Gettleman (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the employer on both counts. King appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Posner and Wood affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The Court first addressed the hostile work environment claim. The district court had addressed that claim in two parts: whether there were hostile working conditions in the 300 days immediately prior to the EEOC charge and whether acts prior to that date could be attributed to Acosta. That was error. Under Morgan, it does not matter when the individual acts of an ongoing employment practice occurred if the practice continues into the 300-day period. Notwithstanding the error, the Court concluded that a remand was not necessary. Almost all of the acts constituting the alleged hostile work environment were the result of one coworker who quit almost 2 years before the EEOC charge. Although there were a few episodes after that, the Court concluded that they were not severe or pervasive enough to sustain a hostile work environment charge. The Court turned to the unequal pay claim. It found significant differences between the pay for the male managers and for the female managers, both in terms of starting salary and raises. The district court erred in its approach to these claims. It had concluded that Acosta had satisfied its burden by articulating education and experience as explanations for the differences in pay and that King had not shown that that explanation was pretext. The Court first noted that this burden-shifting approach only applies under Title VII. Under the Equal Pay Act, the defense that the difference in pay is the result of a factor other than gender is an affirmative defense on which the defendant has both the burden of production and persuasion. Second, the Court concluded that the differences could not be explained by Acosta’s education and experience claim. Education and experience might account for differences in starting salaries but the males at Costa received substantially greater increases in pay after hire as well. A reasonable juror could conclude that the reason for the differences was indeed sex discrimination. Both the Title VII and the Equal Pay Act claim must be remanded for trial.