California court overturns EPA’s denial

A California appeals board has overturned the dismissal of an employee’s complaint under the Equal Pay Act (EPA), finding that her evidence that a single male comparator was paid more than she did was sufficient to survive summary judgment.


Staples employees received annual salaries based on the rank assigned to their position, and each rank had a corresponding pay scale. The specific salary an employee received was determined by several factors, including time spent at the company, number of years in the position, and performance.


Joyce Allen joined Staples in October 2006 and became Area Sales Manager (ASM) in 2015. The ASM position was at grade 37 with a salary range of $65,000 to $135,000.


Staples set Allen’s base salary at $84,999.96 and increased it to $86,912.46 in April 2017. Charles Narlock, another Allen-area ASM, had a base salary in 37th year of $107,698.86, about $22,000 more than Staples was paying Allen when she started in the job.


During Allen’s time in his ASM position, there were two other ASMs, a male who earned between $109,999.76 and $111,099.76 and a female who earned between $124,071.81 and $127,818 $.78.


Although Staples had fewer women than men who were ASMs in the United States during this period, women were among the highest paid ASMs, and at least six men earned less than Allen.


In July 2017, Allen was promoted to a Field Sales Manager (FSD) position, which was a Grade 38 with an annual salary range of $80,000 to $160,000. Allen’s base salary was $86,912.46. Narlock’s base salary in his Grade 38 FSD position was $135,000, which was $48,087.54 more than Allen’s.


Allen filed a lawsuit in 2019, asserting six causes of action against Staples, including violation of the EPA by Staples and its parent company.


Defendants sought summary judgment, arguing that Allen failed to prove his EPA claim prima facie because female ASMs were paid more, on average, than males and that some male ASMs and FSDs received lower salaries than Allen.


A trial court granted the motion, but the appeal panel overruled, finding that Allen had established a prima facie case by showing that only one suitable male comparator in his area was paid more in base salary, than both as an ASM and as an FSD, that she was paid in those positions.


Federal EPA authorities ruled that a plaintiff alleging gender-based wage disparity can establish a prima facie case by showing she was paid less in salary than a single male comparator, the court heard.


Staples countered that the salary discrepancies between Narlock and Allen are explained by genuine factors other than gender, specifically Narlock’s time at the company and his experience prior to holding the two positions.


“But Staples’ evidence showed only that it generally sets salaries based on factors such as seniority, years of experience in a given position, and merit,” the panel wrote. “He did not set out the specific factors upon which Narlock’s base salary, in either position, was based or the factors upon which Plaintiff’s base salaries were based. In the absence of such evidence, Staples failed to establish that there was no factual issue amenable to trial on its defense of “other good faith factors.”


The trial court therefore erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants on Allen’s EPA claim, the appeals court said.


However, the court upheld defendants’ summary judgment on Allen’s other claims, including his gender discrimination claim.


A demonstration of pay disparity, by itself, did not satisfy his obligation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to establish a causal link between the disparity and his gender, the court said.


Allen was also required to submit competent evidence of certain circumstances suggesting that Staples paid her less than Narlock due to her gender. While she pointed to evidence such as Narlock’s “harassing management style” and his favoritism towards a subordinate, Allen failed to tie that evidence to Staples’ March 2015 decision to pay him $22,000. less than Narlock when she started as ASM or Staples. decision in July 2017 to pay her $48,000 less than he did when she started as FSD.


“In the absence of evidence that Narlock played a role in making any of these salary decisions, his alleged misconduct towards the Complainant and his favoritism [of a subordinate] did not, without more, support a reasonable inference of the requisite causation,” the panel concluded.


To read the decision in Allen v. Staples, Inc.., Click here.


Why is this important: The court followed in the footsteps of federal EPA rulings to conclude that Allen’s evidence that a single male comparator was paid more than she was in two different positions was sufficient to support her initial burden on her claim with the EPA, setting aside the summary judgment in favor of the employer. .


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