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Wife in Jones Day Couple’s Suit Says Judge Misread Equal Pay Law

Sept. 10, 2020, 4:00 PM

A female lawyer suing Jones Day for sex-based discrimination and other bias says a federal court mistakenly dismissed her claim she was paid less than male attorneys in her group because she is a woman, based on a misinterpretation of the Equal Pay Act.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia misinterpreted the phrase “equal work” in the EPA when it nixed her claim under the statute on Sept. 4, Julia Sheketoff said Wednesday. The Sept. 4 ruling was otherwise mostly a win for Sheketoff and her husband Mark Savignac, including that they can go forward with their claim that Jones Day’s parental leave policy discriminates against male employees.

Judge Randolph D. Moss said Sheketoff’s EPA claim failed because she didn’t assert that she performed substantially equal work to the male attorneys who allegedly were treated more favorably than her by stating that she worked as many hours or otherwise as hard as they did.

That “ruling turned on an erroneous reading of the EPA,” Sheketoff says in seeking reconsideration by Moss of his dismissal of that claim.

The comparative equanimity and quality of female and male employees’ work may be raised by an employer as an affirmative defense to an Equal Pay Act suit but isn’t something a worker must plead when suing, Sheketoff says.

To plead an EPA claim, a worker only needs to allege she and higher-paid men worked in substantially equal jobs, she says.

She met that standard because her and Savignac’s suit alleges facts that “strongly support the inference that she and higher-paid male” associates in Jones Day’s issues and appeals group were employed at the same level of seniority and performed substantially equal work, Sheketoff says.

She didn’t need to allege that “her personal performance of the job was quantitatively or qualitatively equal to theirs,” she says.

She acknowledges that the plain language of the statute doesn’t fully square with her view of the law. But the plain language clashes even more with the view espoused by Jones Day and embraced by Moss, she says.

And her view is backed by decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and other federal appeals courts, Sheketoff says. It also finds support in guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she says.

Jones Day doesn’t cite any law that truly backs its view, she says.

“The same legal question is at the heart of Jones Day’s current summary judgment motion” in a separate proposed class action by six female associates that is also pending before Moss, Sheketoff says.

She filed a motion Wednesday in that case as well, seeking to join it as an amica curiae backing the women and advancing the same “equal work” argument.

Sheketoff and Savignac met while clerking for a Supreme Court justice and both worked in Jones Day’s Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group. They sued in August 2019, alleging Savignac was fired two weeks after the birth of their son and three business days after they sent the firm an email complaining about gender inequity in its leave policy.

The bias forced Sheketoff to take more time off than she would have liked from her new job as an appellate public defender, the suit alleged. Sheketoff further alleged sex bias in the evaluation of her work and her pay while she was with Jones Day.

The separate class suit was filed in April 2019 and alleges the firm’s secretive “black-box” pay system and performance review processes cause female associates to receive lower pay than male associates and fewer promotion opportunities.

Sheketoff, of Urbana, Ill., represents herself. Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP represents the women in the class action. Jones Day represents itself in both cases.

The cases are Savignac v. Jones Day, D.D.C., No. 1:19-cv-02443, motion for reconsideration 9/9/20 and Tolton v. Jones Day, D.D.C., No. 19-cv-00945, motion for leave to file amica curiae brief 9/9/20.
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To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com