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

Photograph used with consent of Royal Image Photography

An important role of AAUW’s legal advocacy work is demonstrating the real-life impact of pay discrimination on people. One such person is Zoe Spencer, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Virginia State University who is suing the university alleging wage discrimination and retaliation under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

Spencer’s Discovery Leads to an Equal Pay Fight

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

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

Spencer originally filed her case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In April 2017, the case survived a motion to dismiss brought by VSU. The university then filed a motion for summary judgment in October 2017, and in November 2017 the court issued an order granting VSU’s motion and dismissing Spencer’s action with prejudice — meaning that the case is dismissed permanently and Spencer cannot file any future lawsuit on the same grounds, though she is permitted to appeal. The case was dismissed for failure to establish a claim because the lower court determined that Spencer was not comparing her salary to that of the appropriate colleagues as the two male associate professors were affiliated with different departments than Spencer, which the court has determined to be a noncomparable measure of skill, effort, and responsibility for equal pay purposes.

In April 2018, Spencer filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the lower court had been mistaken in granting VSU’s motion for summary judgment. She argued that a reasonable jury could rule in favor of her legal claims, making it improper to toss out the case.

Equal Pay for Equal Work?

What Is Summary Judgment?

Summary judgment is a judge’s decision in favor of one party that is made after discovery of evidence is complete, but before a trial begins. A judge might make a decision to grant a motion for summary judgment asserting that a reasonable jury examining the evidence could decide the case only in favor of the party that asked for a motion for summary judgment — consequently finding that a trial would not be necessary.

AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund choose to support Spencer’s case because pay inequity in academia remains an ongoing problem. In this case, Spencer and her male colleagues were all employed as associate professors at VSU, yet she was paid less. Spencer is being prevented from pursing her legal claims because, although she performed what federal law defines as work “substantially equal” to the work of her male colleagues, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held that distinctions in background, degrees, and additional duties not requiring extra skill as well as academic departmental differences distinguish the jobs enough that there is no equal comparison for her work, and men may be paid more than the women.

Regarding the unfavorable decision of the district court, 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.”

AAUW provides financial support for this case through our Legal Advocacy Fund because in the absence of new, comprehensive federal equal pay legislation, litigation is the primary remedy for women like Spencer. We will continue to help fund her case as it travels through the judicial process.


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LAF Plaintiff Aileen Rizo

An Equal Pay Victory!

AAUW is also helping former teacher Aileen Rizo fight a pay equity case that addresses another problematic pay practice: using salary history to justify current salary. Rizo recently won her case in the Ninth Circuit, which held that using prior salary alone or in combination with other factors cannot justify a wage differential.