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February 11, 2009
Different Pay for Different Jobs, or Bias?
An administrative assistant for a Mississippi school district learned that her salary was more than $25,000 lower than that of a recently hired man with a similar job title. She quit and sued for discrimination motivated by both race and gender.

What happened.“Silver” is an African American woman, while the higher-paid administrator is a white male. She was hired as a temporary secretary in 1996 (at a very low salary), became full-time, and later served as an administrative assistant. During the 6-year tenure of the superintendent of schools (who held the job the longest during Silver’s employment), one of his “cabinet” of high-ranking team members resigned and was not replaced. Two years later, to fill the void, a white male was hired with the official title “Central Administrative Coordinator.” But district officials later testified in court that he was often called an administrative assistant—the same title as Silver’s.

When she learned of his salary in 2006 and protested, officials did not respond. She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then sued in federal district court, charging constructive discharge, violation of the Equal Pay Act, and violation of her civil rights. A jury ruled in favor of the school district on all charges, and the judge assessed the district’s legal expenses to Silver. The assessment was based on the jury’s belief that Silver’s suit had been “baseless, frivolous and without merit.” Silver appealed to the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

What the court said. Pointing to an earlier circuit ruling, appellate judges decided that Silver’s work conditions were not so harsh—as a demotion, pay reduction, or menial duties would have been—that she was forced to resign. But had the district been biased against her? Officials maintained they had two reasons for paying the white male so much: He had a master’s degree, which Silver did not, in educational administration, and he was given an employment contract, which Silver was not.

Accepting those as legitimate factors, judges turned finally to the question of the district’s legal fees. Having heard testimony that Silver’s and the new man’s jobs contained many similar functions and often overlapped, they ruled that Silver’s suit was not frivolous, so she shouldn’t have to pay the fees. Stover v. Hattiesburg Public School District, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, No. 07-60419 (2008).

Point to remember: Given the similarity of their jobs, officials should, at the very least, have told Silver clearly their specific reasons for the huge pay disparity. That might have discouraged her suit.

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