Judge for Southern District of New York Dismisses Equal Pay Case, Second Circuit Vacates and Remands

On February 13, 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a New York federal court‘s dismissal of Mary Ellen Chepak’s complaint in Chepak v. Metropolitan Hospital. Plaintiff Chepak alleged that she interviewed for a position that had been occupied by males, and was told that she would be doing the exact same work that her predecessors had been doing.

When she was hired, the plaintiff was told that her position title would be civil service Social Work Level I, and that the position came with a barely-negotiable salary of $44,123.

After she had been hired to this position, Ms. Chepak discovered that her male predecessors, who had indeed done the exact same work as she had been doing, had been given the higher title of “Coordinating Manager,” which came with a negotiable salary. This allowed the males doing her job to earn about $35 per hour, about 1/3 more than she earned, despite having less education and experience than she. She complained to the Hospital‘s in-house EEOC representative, and nothing happened. She complained to the Director of Social Work about her unequal pay, and the financial problems it created for her family, and again nothing was done.

Eventually she sued the hospital, alleging that they had discriminated against her based on her sex in violation of the Equal Pay Act (EPA), Title VII, and New York Human Rights Law. The district court dismissed her claim.

The appeals court first points out that the bar is very low for plaintiffs, and particularly pro se plaintiffs like Chepak, at the pleading stage. A plaintiff need not allege facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, and she need to allege facts sufficient to defeat summary judgment; she need only bring factual allegations sufficient ‘to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” The appeals court found that the district court erred when it concluded that the plaintiff had failed to state an actionable claim.

One conclusion by the appeals court is especially important. The District Court had found that Chepak was not being paid less for doing the same work as male employees, because those male employees had had different job titles and slightly different job descriptions. But the appeals court found that this was clearly an error by the district court, because the latter had “dismissed Chepak’s EPA and Title VII discrimination claims the job descriptions submitted by Metropolitan Health,” but “the job content and not job title or description is the standard for determining whether there was a violation of the anti-discrimination laws.”

In short, the defendant argued that there could be no viable claim of gender discrimination by Chepak, because the company had given her slightly different job titles and descriptions than comparable male employees. But the appeals court insisted that the case be decided based on substance rather than semantics. After all, the relevant questions in a case like this aren’t about job titles or descriptions, or how the company officially classifies or characterizes the job. The issue is whether someone gets paid less and actually doing essentially the same work because they belong to a protected group.

If you believe an employer has discriminated against you based on your sex, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.