Federal Judge Denies University’s Motion to Dismiss Pay Discrimination Lawsuit Brought by Former Athletic Department Employee

May 24, 2019

A federal judge from the District of Columbia has denied George Washington University’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a former athletic department employee, who claimed she was paid less money than a similarly situated male employee in violation of federal law.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sara Williams, the former executive assistant to former GWU athletic director Patrick Nero, against GWU in September 2017, claiming she was paid about $40,000 less than aforementioned male co-worker. The university moved to dismiss in November 2017, arguing the claim lacked evidentiary support.
The prevailing arguments were set for determination this spring.
“The gravamen of this case dates to September 2015, when Michael Aresco ‘began performing work’ (in Nero’s Office),” wrote the court. Williams alleged that Nero started treating Aresco more “favorably than [Williams], because of sex.” Williams’s responsibilities were allegedly marginalized as she was asked to do “tasks such as running personal errands.”
In January 2016, the University advertised a new position in its athletics department for a special assistant. Williams was allegedly dissuaded from applying for the position. Aresco was selected. “Whereas Ms. Williams’ annual salary as executive assistant fell between $38,500 and $40,000, Aresco initially was paid approximately $77,500 per year as special assistant and later was awarded raises,” according to the opinion.
Williams filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming the University had violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex.
In its analysis, the court first looked at the EPA claim:
“It is sufficient for the Commission to plead that Williams and Aresco performed substantially equal work—and yet were paid differently—without getting into the ‘equal skill, effort, and responsibility’ or “similar working conditions’ aspects of Section 206(d)(1). ‘At the motion to dismiss stage, the district court cannot throw out a complaint even if the plaintiff did not plead the elements of a prima facie case.’ Brady v. Office of Sergeant at Arms, 520 F.3d 490, 493 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510-11 (2002)). The Court concludes that the Commission has sufficiently pled a violation of the Equal Pay Act.”
Turning to the Title VII claim, the court wrote that “as with the EPA claim, the court cannot hold the Commission to the burden of pleading a prima facie case under Title VII—to the extent that the prima facie step even remains relevant for Title VII claims in this Circuit.”
Furthermore, the Commission “has plausibly pled a course of preferential treatment for Aresco, to the detriment of Williams, that supports a reasonable inference of ‘materially adverse’ effects on Williams’ career in the Athletics Department resulting in ‘objectively tangible harm.’ Ortiz-Diaz v. U.S. Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., Office of Inspector Gen., 867 F.3d 70, 73-74 (D.C. Cir. 2017). Whereas the Commission’s EPA claim focuses on a point-in-time comparison between Williams’ and Aresco’s pay, the Title VII claim relies on the University’s activity before, during, and after the process of selecting Aresco for the Special Assistant role. ‘Construing the complaint liberally,’ the Court finds that the complaint contains sufficient factual content to permit ‘the reasonable inference that the [University] is liable for the misconduct alleged.’” Sickle v. Torres Advanced Enterprise Sols., LLC, 884 F.3d 338, 345 (D.C. Cir. 2018).
In sum, “further evidence likely would be necessary to survive summary judgment. But, for now, the Commission’s Complaint contains the ‘short and plain statement’ necessary to place the University on notice of its Title VII claim. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); see Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.”
The opinion can be viewed here: https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Sexism.pdf


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