The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Denton County Public Health Department resolved a lawsuit brought against the county over alleged pay discrimination through a final judgment issued on October 24, 2018.

A physician, Dr. Martha C. Storrie, filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2017. The agency filed its own complaint and subsequent a lawsuit on her behalf against the county. The EEOC and Dr. Storrie maintained that the county violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits unequal pay disparities based on gender.

Dr. Storrie was hired in October 2008 as a primary care clinician in the Denton County Public Health Department. Her position involved providing medical treatment for county residents at county-operated clinics. The EEOC alleged that the county hired a male physician to perform the same duties as Dr. Storrie, but the county set his starting annual salary at more than $34,000 higher than hers. The EEOC asserted that Denton County also failed to take action to remedy the pay discrepancy after Dr. Storrie complained about the alleged discriminatory pay practices.

Denton County terminated Dr. Storrie’s employment in 2016, citing job performance issues.  However, Dr. Storrie claimed that she was fired for complaining about discrepancies in pay.

The federal court declined to grant the EEOC or Denton County complete and final judgment short of a trial, dismissing some claims, but finding that it was necessary for a jury to determine whether the pay disparity was clear evidence of sex-based pay discrimination under the Equal Pay Act or whether the male physician was lawfully paid more for a reason “other than sex.”

Days later, the parties advised the court that the county would permit a judgment to be taken against it, causing the court the federal district court to order Denton County to pay Dr. Storrie $115,000 in damages. Importantly, the county was also required to implement a new written compensation policy for all new physicians in the Public Health Department, to provide training on equal pay for women, and to post a notice at county facilities for three years.  County officials disputed the claims of discrimination and assert the county settled the case only to save taxpayers the cost of trial.

Equal pay discrimination is one of the EEOC’s top priorities highlighted in its recent Strategic Enforcement Plan. The federal agency has published guidance reaffirming the right to be free from discrimination in pay as well as separate guidance on how workers can challenge suspected pay discrimination.

This result should serve as a reminder for healthcare employers to consistently evaluate their physician compensation policies and practices, and ensure that they are in compliance with the law on pay equality. Employers should keep in mind that pay differentials are only permitted when they are based on seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production, or a factor other than sex.