Spencer v. Virginia State University

On Monday March 18, 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which granted summary judgment in favor of Virginia State University.  The Fourth Circuit found that Spencer’s work was not equal to that of her comparators and the wage disparity which she experienced was based on “a factor other than sex” under the Equal Pay Act. After reviewing the district court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit found that the district court’s ruling was appropriate because there was “no genuine dispute as to any material fact” — meaning Spencer did not meet the requirements to overcome a motion for summary judgment.  Spencer’s other claims did not survive either.

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. Spencer’s case was scheduled for oral argument at the fourth circuit on October 31, 2018.  AAUW Virginia members were present within the courtroom to support Spencer during the argument.  Unfortunately, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision granting VSU’s motion for summary judgment.

Equal Pay for Equal Work?

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’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.

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.