Court Finds Ambiguity in Wage Discrimination Rulings

September 22, 2001 ( - A female plaintiff's wage discrimination claim was allowed to proceed after a federal district court noted ambiguities in the case law on such matters.

Michelle Hennick, a former food distributor employee, claimed that her employer failed to hire, train or promote her to a route manager’s job — and made her working conditions so intolerable that she was effectively discharged, according to BNA Daily Labor Reporter.

In Hennick v. Schwans Sales Enterprises, Judge Mark W. Bennett of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa refused Schwans Sales Enterprises’ request for summary judgment on several claims brought by Hennick, who sued for wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Behavioral Qualities?


Schwans argued that Hennick’s claims were founded on her preference for the position of route manager over another position, that of new account specialist. The employer claimed that it exercised business judgment, not discrimination, in refusing to place Hennick in the route manager’s job, claiming she lacked the “necessary behavioral qualities” to be a successful route manager.

Additionally, Schwans argued that the route manager’s job was a lateral move, not a promotion — and that it gave her a raise and better hours shortly before she left.

However, the court disagreed, noting that Hennick raised genuine issues of material fact that the job was not a purely lateral transfer.   Further, the court found that a jury might reasonably find that the particular circumstances gave rise to the claim, including statements by Hennick’s manager and the absence of any female route managers.

Apparent Conflicts

Judge Bennett cited apparently conflicting rulings of Eighth Circuit panels in similar cases. He noted that in Sowell v. Alumina Ceramics Inc., a panel ruled that an employee could not state a prima facie case   – one that is evident on the face of it – of wage discrimination because she was paid the same as, or more than, at least some comparable male employees.

On the other hand, the judge found that in Hutchins v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, another Eighth Circuit panel “apparently applied a different rule.”   That court found that an employee could state a prima facie case by showing that “she was paid less than at least some male comparators for equal work, even if she was paid the same as other male comparators.”

In support of his ruling, Bennett also noted that in EEOC v. White & Son Enterprises, the Eleventh Circuit held that a prima facie case of wage discrimination “need only show discrimination in pay against an employee vis-à-vis one employee of the opposite sex.”   Bennett believed that approach was more in keeping with the purposes of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII — and that the approach was not expressly overruled by the decisions in the Eighth Circuit.