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The Equal Pay Case You Didn’t Hear About–And Why It Matters

by | Jul 28, 2020 | Uncategorized

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had Supreme Court decisions that made new law. But you probably did not hear about the many cases the Supreme Court decided not to hear –one being Rizo v. Yovino.

In addition to the Supreme Court ruling that LGBTQ persons were protected under Title against employment discrimination, the Court refused to hear Rizo v. Yovino—a case challenging the Equal Pay Act. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, requiring that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. The Act was an attempt to abolish the wage gap between men and women by prohibiting the use of past salary to be a justification for pay disparity. The use of past salary to determine one’s new salary has historically disadvantaged women who—because of the gender pay gap—made less than their male counterparts.

Aileen Rizo, a math consultant for a Fresno public school in California, realized she was making less than her male counterparts. She challenged the public school’s policy that based a new hire’s salary on their previous work salary. The Fresno public school claimed that the policy did not favor men over women—despite Rizo’s compensation when compared to her male colleagues. Besides the Equal Pay Act, California is 1 of 18 states that bars the use of one’s pay history for their new salary. (New Jersey is one of the 18 states that has a state-wide ban on using salary history to justify compensation.) The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case and ruled in favor of Rizo. But the decision was released 11 days after Judge Stephen Reinhart, the Court of Appeals Judge hearing the case, passed away. 

A new judge appointed to the case once again decided in Rizo’s favor, declaring that employers cannot use a person’s past salary to justify a pay disparity between male and female employees.

Panicked, the Fresno County superintendent and business advocates petitioned the Supreme Court to be heard—hoping for a reversal. However, without providing a reason, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, effectively leaving the Ninth Circuit’s decision in place.

More than 7,000 cases across the country are appealed by filing a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the Court only decides to hear 100 to 150 of those cases. For the Supreme Court to hear a case, four of the nine justices must vote in favor. Reasons for deciding not to hear a case vary. The Supreme Court has rules that prevent it from hearing certain cases that would create an imbalance between the three branches of government or would require the court to be impartial. In addition, if a case is too novel, the Supreme Court may also decide not to hear it to allow other forms of governant to work out a solution. Lastly, the most common reason the Supreme Court chooses not to hear a case, is that it does not want to disturb the previous ruling of law—and in effect, by denying to hear the case, confirms the lower court’s decision.

Cases not heard by the Supreme Court still carry legal and historical significance when it comes to preserving precedent and trends.  In this case, a victory for women in the workplace in California stands.

Aleksandra Syniec, who wrote this article, is a second-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law. She is also knowledgeable in landlord-tenant law and the information technology. 

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