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Ability to Negotiate Salary May Be Defense to Equal Pay Act Claim

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a civil action against the Hunter-Tannersville Central School District (Hunter-Tannersville) alleging violation of the Equal Pay Act. Superintendent Dr. Susan Vickers took the position after her predecessor, Dr. Patrick Sweeney, left. Hunter-Tannersville paid Sweeney more than it paid Vickers both in salary and benefits.

To establish a violation of the Equal Pay Act, a plaintiff must show the employer paid different wages to employees of the opposite sex, the employees performed equal work, and the jobs were performed under similar conditions. To defend against a plaintiff’s showing, employers may point to a seniority system, a merit system, a system measuring earnings by quantity or quality of production, or a differential based on “any other factor other than sex.” This last factor must be rooted in legitimate business-related reasons. In the current action, the EEOC asked the federal district court to strike Hunter-Tannersville’s use of salary negotiations as a “job-related factor other than sex.” It argued that the ability to negotiate a higher salary is not related to the performance of the position. The court was not persuaded by the EEOC’s argument that only job-related factors could be a “factor other than sex.” The court did leave open the possibility that it would have to resolve the substantive question of whether negotiations could “constitute a ‘factor other than sex’” but will allow the school district to proceed with it. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on this issue. Two other circuits have held that negotiation is a valid defense.