George Washington University Loses Bid to Toss Pay Bias Case (1)

May 9, 2019, 2:34 PMUpdated: May 9, 2019, 7:51 PM

Sex discrimination claims against George Washington University for alleged preferential treatment given to a male athletics department employee will proceed, a federal court in Washington ruled.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated plausible claims that the university violated the Equal Pay Act and violated the civil rights of staffer Sara Williams by denying her advancement on the basis of her sex, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said May 8.

“We’re disappointed in the court’s decision but understand that it was based only on the EEOC’s allegations, which must be accepted as true at the motion to dismiss phase, and the significant deference the court gave to the EEOC’s representation that it complied with its duty to conciliate before filing its lawsuit,” Maralee Csellar, GW director of media relations, said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law.

“The university looks forward to demonstrating that it treated Ms. Williams fairly and lawfully,” she said.

The decision comes as other universities have defended against allegations of discriminatory pay and promotions. Some recent cases resulted in million-dollar settlements and jury awards, but some universities have defeated those lawsuits.

Attorneys with the EEOC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Promotion Created for Male Colleague

Williams was hired in 2014 as an executive assistant by Patrick Nero, GW’s director of athletics, according to the decision.

She alleges that in 2015 a male employee, Michael Aresco, was assigned similar duties to those she was performing and then was hired into a newly created “Special Assistant” position in 2016.

Williams also says unnamed personnel at the university informed her the new position was “off limits” because it had been created for Aresco.

Williams pursued Equal Pay Act and civil rights claims with the EEOC on grounds that she was underpaid for work substantially equal to that performed by Aresco and was denied the promotion solely on the basis of her sex.

EEOC sued the Washington-based university after it declined to conciliate the dispute.

Here, where Williams was allegedly paid $38,500 to $40,000 and Aresco was paid about $77,500, the EEOC plausibly stated a claim under the Equal Pay Act, the court said.

It also allowed the EEOC’s claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

‘Tangible Harm’

More evidence will be required for the commission to defend that claim against a summary judgment motion, but its allegations supported a “reasonable inference of ‘materially adverse’ effects on Ms. Williams’ career in the athletics department” and a “tangible harm” protected by federal law, the court said.

When looking at bias in promotion and assignment practices, one of the important things for employers to analyze is how work within their organization is distributed, Victoria Budson, founder and executive director of the Women and Public Policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told Bloomberg Law. Employers should have a system to assign work to ensure that all employees at the same level are given opportunities for “stretch assignments,” meaning work important enough to provide a pathway to promotion.

“When individuals aren’t given that opportunity, what can happen is that even employees with the same years of service end up having very different careers, which can lead to pay differentials, because they weren’t given work to really cut their teeth and be prepared for the next promotion or rank in the organization,” Budson said.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote the opinion.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP represented GWU.

The case is EEOC v. George Wash. Univ., 2019 BL 166686, D.D.C., No. 17-cv-01978, motion to dismiss denied 5/8/19.

(Updated with additional reporting.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Steven M. Sellers in Washington at ssellers@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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