University of Oregon professor’s equal pay lawsuit can proceed to jury trial
University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd could finally get her day in court, in front of a jury, thanks to a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Freyd filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against UO in 2017 claiming the university was paying her unequally in comparison to her male colleagues, who had similar or lesser experience, even though they all had comparable jobs.
Those pay disparities, of tens of thousands of dollars, were caused by retention raises, Freyd argued, where psychology department employees at UO were given raises in order to keep them from taking jobs at other universities.
In a study she conducted, Freyd found that from 2006 to 2016 the psychology department engaged in 20 retention negotiations; only four of those negotiations included women, and only one of those negotiations resulted in a raise for a woman — even though there was a roughly equal amount of women and men working in the department.
An Oregon U.S. District Court judge disagreed with Freyd’s claims and ruled in favor of the university in 2019, dismissing the case before it had the chance to be heard by a jury. The judge stated that the university was not violating discrimination laws and that Freyd could not prove she and her male colleagues did equal or comparable jobs. The district court also found that the university’s practice of retention raises was a “business necessity,” and that Freyd’s analysis had too small of a sample size.
Freyd filed an appeal shortly after.
Now, a Ninth Circuit opinion has at least partially agreed with Freyd — that she had the same “common core of tasks” as her male colleagues.
The majority of the Ninth Circuit panel also agreed with Freyd’s findings that those retention raises caused gendered pay disparities.
“Freyd challenged a specific employment practice of awarding retention raises without also increasing the salaries of other professors of comparable merit and seniority,” the Ninth Circuit opinion reads. “Second, she put forth evidence that this practice caused a significant discriminatory impact.”
Freyd, who retired from the university this week, issued a statement on the court’s opinion Monday.
“I am pleased to report that the court recognized that the Equal Pay Act applies in professional settings and that courts cannot break down jobs into tiny pieces,” Freyd wrote. “They recognized our claim that practices like retention raises can result in discrimination that is against the law.”
The judges did, however, agree with the district court that UO did not intentionally discriminate against Freyd and other female faculty in giving out those retention raises.
From here, the case will go back to the district court in front of a jury, unless the university appeals.
“[T]he appellate court unanimously found that no evidence supports allegations that the University of Oregon or any of its personnel engaged in any act of intentional discrimination,” the university said in a statement. “The court dismissed seven out of the ten claims put forward by the plaintiff and made no findings with regard to the remaining three claims, but said factual issues relating to those claims should be decided by a jury.”
UO continued: “Because the issues posed by this case place the ability of universities to retain faculty in question, the University of Oregon will evaluate carefully over the coming days whether to appeal or proceed to trial.”
Freyd said that this ruling not only means a lot to her, but to other women who may try to make similar legal claims in the future.
“It sends a strong message of support to so many women who continue to struggle against pay discrimination,” Freyd said. “I hope that the University of Oregon will now move forward in the spirit of equity and justice.”
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