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Circuit Court Highlights Need for True Comparator in Unequal Pay Claim

Paul Palmer, Jr. worked as a lecturer for Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (IU). In his third year, Palmer asked about being promoted to senior lecturer. The department head, Professor Krishnan, told Palmer he should wait because lecturers rarely applied before their sixth year. After six years, IU promoted Palmer to senior lecturer. Around the same time, IU hired Josh Gildea, a white lecturer. Gildea also directed an academy within the department and thus earned an additional stipend. Two years later, Palmer complained to IU because Gildea’s base salary was almost the same as Palmer’s. He said it looked “biased.” Palmer emailed complaints to other IU administrators about the bias against him. When Gildea sought early promotion to senior lecturer, Palmer expressed additional frustration at Gildea “going up for promotion nearly 3 full years earlier” than Palmer was allowed. 

Palmer filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a lawsuit alleging race discrimination. After the district court dismissed the case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed Palmer’s claims. The circuit court evaluated IU’s failure to promote Palmer after his third year and the unequal pay claim. The court dismissed the first claim as time-barred by the statute of limitations.

Regarding his unequal pay claim, Palmer had to demonstrate that race accounted for the pay disparity. According to the Seventh Circuit, Palmer had to show more than both men held the same title of lecturer. The court found many differences to account for their respective pay. Palmer earned a higher base pay. However, Gildea earned more overall because of his role in the academy. Gildea also earned additional money for “overload classes” that he taught. He took on many more courses, creating a significant depth of experience. Palmer did not also teach overload classes. Thus, their work was not equal and could not be the basis of an unequal pay claim. Gildea earned higher annual raises than every member in the department because he ramped up teaching experience so rapidly. While Palmer disputed the value of Gildea’s role as academy director, the court refused to act as a “super-personnel board.” The court affirmed the dismissal of the case.