Eleventh Circuit Reiterates Employers' Heavy Burden under Equal Pay Act

By: Hannah D. Monroe

03.19.18

The Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Bowen v. Manheim Remarketing, Inc., 882 F.3d 1358 (11th Cir. 2018) reiterates an employer’s heavy burden to establish an affirmative defense in order to win summary judgment in cases alleging Equal Pay Act violations.

In Bowen v. Manheim, Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of her employment discrimination suit under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which alleged that Manheim discriminated against her by paying her less than her male predecessor. The Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded the trial court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of Manheim, holding that Plaintiff was entitled to proceed to trial.

Plaintiff Bowen was promoted to arbitration manager three years after being hired as an automobile detailer by Manheim. Bowen replaced a male arbitration manager. The male arbitration manager was paid $46,350 during his first year as arbitration manager, but Bowen’s starting salary as arbitration manager was $32,000. Bowen’s salary did not reach $46,350 until her sixth year as arbitration manager. 

During the summary judgment stage of the litigation, Bowen offered documents and testimony about her performance and salary history, which showed that her salary was below the minimum salary for arbitration managers for a few years and was consistently well below the midpoint salary for arbitration managers. Bowen also provided an affidavit from Manheim’s human resources manager, which described seemingly sex-biased interactions with the general managers at Manheim and presented statistical evidence that women at Manheim were paid similarly but their pay was “thousands of dollars less than men’s pay for the same jobs.” Id. at 1361. Although the human resources manager reported these pay disparity findings to one of the general managers, nothing was done to address the issue. 

In spite of this evidence, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Manheim because Manheim offered factors other than sex—prior salary and prior experience—to justify the pay disparity between Plaintiff and her male predecessor. The predecessor worked for Manheim for six years before his promotion to arbitration manager, had prior managerial and mechanical experience, and earned $46,350 at Manheim before the promotion. In contrast, Plaintiff was promoted to arbitration manager after only three years, had limited prior managerial and mechanical experience, and earned around $26,000 before the promotion.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded to allow Plaintiff’s case to proceed to trial, finding that, although Manheim had stated factors other than sex to explain the pay disparity, the employer’s burden to establish an affirmative defense after a plaintiff has established a case under the Equal Pay Act is a “heavy one,” and the employer must show “the factor of sex provided no basis for the wage differential.” Id. at 1362. Plaintiff established a prima facie case, i.e. that her employer paid “different wages to employees of opposite sexes for equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which [we]re performed under similar working conditions.” Id. (quoting Irby v. Bittick, 44 F.3d 949, 954 (11th Cir. 1995)). Although Manheim identified nondiscriminatory reasons for the disparity, the Court held that a jury could find that Manheim had failed to satisfy its “heavy burden” of showing that sex provided no basis for the disparity and could find that prior salary and experience alone did not explain the disparate pay overtime once Plaintiff had established herself as an effective arbitration manager.

With regard to Plaintiff’s mixed-motive claim under Title VII, the Court agreed with Plaintiff that she had presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that her sex was a motivating factor for the pay disparity between her and her male predecessor.  Thus, the Court reversed and remanded the trial court’s summary judgment ruling on this claim as well, finding Plaintiff was entitled to proceed to trial on this claim, as well as her claim under the Equal Pay Act.

This case reminds employers that the burden to establish an affirmative defense under the Equal Pay Act is a heavy one. Employers should take proactive steps to audit their pay practices to determine whether disparities in pay between males and females could withstand scrutiny by a court.

Hannah Monroe is an attorney in RKC's Tallahassee office. She defends and advises private and government employers regarding a wide range of employment laws, including Title VII, Florida’s Whistleblower Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell conducts audits and advises employers regarding issues under the Equal Pay Act.

 
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