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Employment-discrimination statutes forbid reliance on criteria such as race and sex. Provided that they avoid these, employers are free to set their own standards. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other anti-discrimination statutes, once a plaintiff makes a prima facie case of discrimination, all the employer need do is articulate a ground of decision that avoids reliance on the forbidden grounds. The plaintiff then bears the burden to show that the stated reason is a pretext for a decision really made on prohibited criteria. Proof that the actual reason disserves the employer's interests does not discharge that burden, as long as the employer does not rely on one of the forbidden grounds.
Plaintiff Jenny Wernsing sued defendant state agency under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, 29 U.S.C.S. § 206(d). Plaintiff had taken a job with the state agency after having worked in the private sector. Her starting salary was based on what she had been earning. Plaintiff claimed that this practice violated the Act. The United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois granted summary judgment for the agency. Plaintiff appealed.
Was the practice of setting starting salary based on the employee’s previous salary at one’s prior employer violative of the Equal pay Act?
The Court held that 29 U.S.C.S. § 206(d) forbade differences “on the basis of sex” rather than differences that have other origins. In fact, the Court noted that § 206(d)(1)(iv) exempted any pay differential based on “any other factor other than sex." According to the Court, wages at one's prior employer were a "factor other than sex," which an employer may use to set pay consistently with the Equal Pay Act. The Court further held that the Equal Pay Act was not a back-door means to enforce civil-service laws, and if plaintiff believed that the agency's practice was bad under state law, her remedy was in state court. Moreover, the Court noted that plaintiff presented no evidence to support her contention that all market wages were discriminatory and should be ignored when setting salaries. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision.