California Court Reverses Dismissal of EPA Claim

Employment Law


A California appellate panel reversed dismissal of a female employee’s Equal Pay Act (EPA) claim, finding her evidence that a single male comparator was paid more than she was to be sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Employees at Staples received annual salaries based on the grade assigned to their job position, and each grade had a corresponding salary range. The specific salary an employee received was determined by several factors, including time with the company, number of years in the position and performance.

Joyce Allen joined Staples in October 2006 and became an area sales manager (ASM) in 2015. The ASM position was grade 37 with a salary range of $65,000–$135,000.

Staples set Allen’s base salary at $84,999.96 and increased it to $86,912.46 in April 2017. Charles Narlock, another ASM in Allen’s region, had a base salary in grade 37 of $107,698.86—approximately $22,000 more than Staples paid Allen when she started in the position.

During the period in which Allen held her ASM position, there were two other ASMs, a man who earned between $109,999.76 and $111,099.76, and a woman who earned between $124,071.81 and $127,818.78.

Although Staples had fewer women than men who were ASMs in the United States during that period, women were among the highest-earning ASMs and at least six men earned less than Allen.

In July 2017, Allen was promoted to a field sales director (FSD) position, which was a grade 38 with an annual salary range of $80,000–$160,000. Allen’s base salary was $86,912.46. Narlock’s base salary in his grade 38 FSD position was $135,000, or $48,087.54 more than Allen’s.

Allen sued in 2019, asserting six causes of action against Staples, including violation of the EPA by Staples and its parent company.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Allen failed to make a prima facie case on her EPA claim because female ASMs were paid more, on average, than men were paid and some male ASMs and FSDs were paid salaries lower than Allen’s.

A trial court granted the motion but the appellate panel reversed, holding that Allen made a prima facie case with a showing that a single appropriate male comparator in her region was paid more in base salary, both as an ASM and as an FSD, than she was paid in those positions.

Authorities under the federal EPA have held that a plaintiff claiming gender-based pay disparity may establish a prima facie case by showing that she was paid less in salary than a single male comparator, the court said.

Staples countered that the salary differentials between Narlock and Allen are explained by bona fide factors other than gender—specifically, Narlock’s time with the company and his experience before taking both positions.

“But Staples’s evidence showed only that, as a general practice, it set salaries based on factors such as seniority, years of experience in a given position, and merit,” the panel wrote. “It did not set forth the specific factors on which Narlock’s base salary, in either position, was premised or the factors on which plaintiff’s base salaries were premised. Absent such evidence, Staples failed to establish that there was no triable issue of fact on its ‘other bona fide factors’ defense.”

The trial court therefore erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants on Allen’s EPA claim, the appellate court said.

However, the court affirmed summary judgment for the defendants on Allen’s other claims, including her gender discrimination claim.

A showing of pay disparity, by itself, did not satisfy her burden under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to make a causal connection between the disparity and her gender, the court said.

Allen was also required to submit competent evidence of some circumstance suggesting that Staples paid her less than Narlock because of her gender. While she pointed to evidence such as Narlock’s “harassing management style” and his favoritism of a subordinate, Allen failed to link that evidence to either Staples’ decision in March 2015 to pay her $22,000 less than Narlock when she started as an ASM or Staples’ decision in July 2017 to pay her $48,000 less than him when she started as an FSD.

“Absent some evidence that Narlock had a role in making either of those salary decisions, his alleged misconduct toward plaintiff and favoritism [of a subordinate] did not, without more, support a reasonable inference of the requisite causal link,” the panel concluded.

To read the decision in Allen v. Staples, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: The court followed in the footsteps of federal EPA decisions to hold that Allen’s evidence that a single male comparator was paid more than she was in two different positions was sufficient to carry her initial burden on her EPA claim, reversing summary judgment in favor of the employer.

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