Civilian Employee Loses ‘Equal Pay For Equal Work’ Lawsuit

An occasional misconception is that there is a principle in the law that there must be “equal pay for equal work.” In fact, with essentially one exception, federal law does not require “equal pay for equal work,” and employers are free to pay identically situated employees different rates. The one exception is that the reason for paying employees differently cannot be based on their protected class status. In particular, the Equal Pay Act, which has become part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, prohibits unequal pay based on sex.

Equal Pay Act cases are tough to prove, however. A Florida case provides a good example of how the cases usually go in the public safety environment.

Brenda Viana is a civilian employee of the Sarasota County Sheriff. Viana has worked for the Sheriff since 1990 in jobs that include darkroom technician, ten-print technician, and latent-print examiner. In 2002, the Sheriff promoted Viana to AFIS Coordinator, a newly-created job with responsibility for administering the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The Sheriff classified the AFIS Coordinator job at pay-grade 14. In 2003, Viana began supervising other employees, including a ten-print technician and two latent-print examiners. Her pay increased but her pay grade remained the same.

In October 2009, Viana requested that the Sheriff adjust her pay grade to achieve parity with the Crime Scene Supervisor, classified at grade 20. The Sheriff denied the request and later hired a male as Crime Scene Supervisor. Viana did not apply for the job.

In 2011, the Sheriff increased the pay grade for Viana’s job from grade 14 to grade 16. The grade increase was part of a strategic plan resulting in grade increases throughout the Sheriff’s Office. The Crime Scene Supervisor job remained classified at grade 20. Viana, still unsatisfied, brought an Equal Pay Act lawsuit.

A federal court dismissed Viana’s claims. The Court found that “the Sheriff offers a non-discriminatory reason for the pay-grade differential: The Sheriff states that a pay grade is based on a job’s necessary skills and expertise, working conditions, and market value, as well as the number and location of people supervised. Viana’s work is devoted to fingerprint evidence; the Crime Scene Supervisor’s work requires analysis of a total crime scene, including measuring and photographing; collecting and preserving blood, fluid, and other evidence; administering the gunshot residue test; and examining a body. Viana works indoors; the Crime Scene Supervisor works indoors and outdoors and is required to attend the crime scene, which can subject a person to harsh temperatures and hazardous conditions. Viana supervises employees who work in an office environment in close proximity to her; the Crime Scene Supervisor supervises employees who often work at a remote crime scene and who are assigned a take-home vehicle.

“Ultimately, Viana quarrels with the wisdom of the Sheriff’s reasonable choice to place a higher value on a job which requires more diverse skills and more technical skills and in which the occupant supervises a larger number of employees, who – regardless of their pay grade – work at remote, unpleasant, and dangerous crime scenes. Title VII is not a device that empowers the judge or the jury to act as a super personnel department that second-guesses employers’ business judgments.”

Viana v. Knight, 2014 WL 4101700 (M.D. Fla. 2014).