Court Case: Penk, et al. v. Oregon State Board of Higher Education

Case History

Anna Penk was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, in which she and 21 other named individuals sued the Board for sex discrimination in pay, promotion, and treatment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The women claimed Title VII violations both as individuals and as a class.

As individuals, the women claimed that they had been discriminated against on the basis of sex in a range of areas, such as salary, rank at hire, promotion, tenure, and working conditions. The 22 named individuals collectively asserted a total of 58 claims. The class, composed of all female regular teaching faculty employed at half-time or greater as of July 21, 1979, claimed that the Board maintained a pattern or practice of disparate treatment against women in terms of salary, promotion, and tenure.

Plaintiffs filed suit in federal court in 1980, and the class was certified by the court in 1981. The case went to trial before the court in 1984 and lasted more than nine months. With regard to its claims of disparate treatment, the class relied on statistical evidence to show disparities in pay and promotion between men and women. Following trial, the court concluded that the plaintiffs as a class failed to establish, by preponderance of the evidence, that the Board had any systematic intent to discriminate, or that discrimination was a standard operating procedure. The court also found that the individual plaintiffs on the whole failed to show that the Board’s reasons for disparities were pretext for sex discrimination, and granted relief in three out of the 58 individual claims.

The plaintiffs appealed the court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which in 1987 affirmed the decision of the district court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case later that year. However, the plaintiffs and their statistical evidence sparked debate in Oregon, where the state’s legislature ultimately passed a law against discrimination in its institutions of higher education.

Key Issues

Sex discrimination in tenure, promotion and pay in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.