Spencer v. Virginia State University: A Case on Gender Equity in Academia

Update February 20, 2018: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a motion for summary judgment in Spencer v. Virginia State University. The judge’s decision means that the case of Zoe Spencer, Ph.D., will not continue to trial at this time.

Regarding the unfavorable decision, Spencer’s attorney, Noah Peters, J.D., says, “It has been our intention all along to establish the law that women pursuing Equal Pay Act and Title VII cases before universities are not limited to comparing their salaries to professors in their own department. Instead, they can look to professors in other departments in appropriate circumstances.”

Spencer is determined to continue pursuing pay equity and intends to appeal the motion for summary judgment. AAUW is proud to support her as her case continues.

Photograph used with consent of Royal Image Photography

An Equal Pay Fight

As the Gender Equity Task Force chair at Virginia State University (VSU), Zoe Spencer, Ph.D., was charged with identifying deficits in gender equity, but when she did she was met with resistance. Her advocacy for systemic reform unearthed a personal pay equity issue, which prompted litigation, claiming willful wage discrimination and retaliation under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA).

In 2014 two male administrators were appointed to faculty positions as associate professors. Spencer alleges that their salaries were vastly higher than female professors at all ranks and $35,000–49,500 higher than her salary. She requested a salary adjustment based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA, but her request was denied. Spencer alleges that she subsequently faced retaliation, including delays in processing her pay.

Retaliation for Reporting Pay Inequity Is Illegal

What Is Summary Judgment?

A summary judgment, as defined by TheLaw.com, is a final decision in favor of one party that is made after discovery of evidence is complete but prior to trial. A judge will make this decision when a party makes a motion for summary judgment, arguing that a reasonable jury examining the evidence could decide the case only in favor of that party, and the judge agrees that a trial would not be necessary.

The antiretaliation provision of the EPA prevents an employer from interfering with an employee’s attempt to enforce the protections of the act. In order to prove retaliation under the Equal Pay Act you must show that (1) you engaged in a protected activity, (2) your employer took adverse employment action against you, and (3) there is a connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.

At a minimum, VSU’s denying Spencer’s requested salary increase is sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action (number two in the above list). But Spencer also alleges she experienced the following, according to the memorandum opinion denying VSU’s motion to dismiss issued by Judge Henry Hudson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia:

  • Intentionally delayed paperwork signing that delayed timely compensation
  • Veiled threats
  • Refusal to address her complaints regarding a troubled student
  • Being removed from her role of giving the freshman orientation speech without explanation

Pay equity is a paramount concern for AAUW. We choose to support Spencer through our legal case support program because retaliation for reporting pay discrimination stifles equity. The “silencing strategy,” as Spencer calls it, is that employers across disciplines are taking actions designed to prevent employees from making or supporting a claim of discrimination, which is prohibited by law.

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