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Reviving Paycheck Fairness: Why and How the Factor-Other-Than-Sex Defense Matters

25 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2017  

Deborah L. Brake

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Date Written: 2016

Abstract

Ever since the Supreme Court’s short-lived decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company, the equal pay movement has coalesced around the Paycheck Fairness Act as the legal reform strategy for addressing the gender wage gap. The centerpiece of the Act would tighten the Factor Other Than Sex defense (FOTS) to require the employer’s sex-neutral factor to be bona fide, job-related for the position in question, and consistent with business necessity. Even without the Paycheck Fairness Act, some recent lower court decisions have interpreted the existing Equal Pay Act to set limits on the nondiscriminatory factors that can satisfy the FOTS defense, effectively incorporating a business necessity standard to assess the strength of the employer’s justification for the pay disparity.

This move to heighten judicial scrutiny of the FOTS defense is not without controversy. Some critics of the Paycheck Fairness Act have charged that requiring an employer to use a bona fide, business-justified factor to defend a pay disparity would turn the equal pay claim into a disparate impact claim, leaving it unmoored from its doctrinal and normative foundations. Others question whether the strategy goes far enough to make a difference in plaintiffs’ poor success rates, since it does nothing to relieve the problem of courts requiring strict similarity between comparators, a problem that would remain as a roadblock to proving a prima facie equal pay case. This article surveys recent developments in the Equal Pay Act case law interpreting the FOTS defense and considers how these developments compare to the changes proposed in the Paycheck Fairness Act. It then argues that the Supreme Court’s recent pregnancy discrimination decision in Young v. UPS, which uses unjustified impact to infer discriminatory intent, can help respond to the criticism of the proposed changes to the FOTS. The Court in Young took a similar step in incorporating a business necessity test to smoke out employer intent in a disparate treatment framework. Finally, the article defends judicial scrutiny of the employer’s business justifications for unequal pay as a way to ensure that the equal pay laws move beyond a narrow understanding of pay discrimination as conscious animus to encompass implicit bias. In addition to making the equal pay claim more likely to succeed in litigation, the tightening of the FOTS defense brings to the forefront the core issue in the politics of pay equality: the legitimacy of market explanations for paying women less to do substantially equal work.

Keywords: Equal Pay Act, Pay Discrimination, Gender Wage Gap, Lilly Ledbetter, Pregnancy Discrimination, Disparate Treatment, Disparate Impact, Sex Discrimination

Suggested Citation

Brake, Deborah L., Reviving Paycheck Fairness: Why and How the Factor-Other-Than-Sex Defense Matters (2016). Idaho Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 891, 2016; U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2950653

Deborah L. Brake (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

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