By Melissa McKinney and Sarah Orwig 


In Spencer v. University of Virginia,[1]Zoe Spencer, Professor of Sociology at Virginia State University brought this suit against her employer alleging that she was paid less than her male colleagues, a violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.[2]Spencer earned $70,000 per year whereas the male colleagues she based her suit on both earned over $100,000.[3]Spencer claimed that this difference in pay was on the basis of her sex.[4]

Procedural History

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment for Virginia State, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact.[5]Plaintiff appealed.[6]The issues before the court were whether Spencer sufficiently established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the male colleagues she compares her salary to were “appropriate comparators” under both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII and the appropriateness of the compensation system that resulted in higher pay for Spencer’s male colleagues.[7]

Plaintiff’s Arguments

In reference to the Equal Pay Act, Spencer first argued that the two male professors were “appropriate comparators” as “all [Virginia State] professors perform equal work because they all perform the same essential tasks: preparing syllabi and lessons, instructing students, tracking student progress, managing the classroom, providing feedback, and inputting grades.”[8]She then argued that the compensation system used for these colleagues (a formula paying her colleagues, former administrators, 9/12ths of what had been their administrator salary) resulted in them being “significantly overpaid in comparison to [her].”[9]Spencer also argued that use of this compensation system was improper in relation to two specific male colleagues, as Virginia State had previously only used that formula for “administrators who were previously tenured faculty.”[10]

In reference to her Title VII claim, Spencer again argued that the two male professors were “appropriate comparators” as they were employed in sufficiently similar jobs.[11]

Defendant’s Arguments

            In defense to Spencer’s Equal Pay Act claim, the University argued at that the male professor’s salaries were based on a system that paid former administrators 9/12ths of their administrator salary.[12]Because this system is based off their prior role as administrators, the system served as evidence that the salaries of the male professors were not determined on the basis their sex.[13]

            In defense to Spencer’s Title VII claim, the University again argued that the wage disparity was based on the 9/12th system, a non-sex based decision.[14]

Court’s Holding: Summary Judgment Affirmed on Both Claims

            The Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on both claims,[15]finding that Spencer could not establish a prima facie case on her Equal Pay Act claim and her Title VII sex-based wage discrimination claim.[16]

            In examining Spencer’s Equal Pay Act claim, the court held that Spencer failed to establish that she and the male professors of the University performed equal work and that the University’s wage disparity was not based on a “factor other than sex.”[17]In order to prevail on her Equal Pay Act claim, Spencer needed to establish three elements: “(1) the University paid higher wages to an employee of the opposite sex who (2) performed equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility (3) under similar working conditions.”[18]

            Spencer established that the University did pay the two named professors higher salaries.[19]The court, however, found that she failed the second and third elements.[20]The court looked beyond the title of the professor and considered the courses the male professors taught, their academic departments, and their workload required for those courses in comparison to Spencer’s courses, department, and workload.[21]Upon this examination, the court determined that the male professors had different responsibilities than Spencer because they mostly taught graduate level courses and oversaw dissertations while Spencer taught undergraduate classes.[22]The court also found that Spencer did not present evidence that her job was “virtually identical” to that of the two male professors.[23]

            Additionally, the court reasoned that even if Spencer could establish that her work was the same as the male professors, Spencer’s claim would still fail because the University established that the wage disparity was based on “a factor other than sex.”[24]The University established that the male professor’s salaries was based on their former positions as administrators rather than on the basis of their sex.[25]

Upon review of Spencer’s second claim for Title VII sex-based wage discrimination, the court concluded that Spencer had not established the prima facie elements on the claim.[26]In order to prevail on a Title VII sex-based wage discrimination claim, a plaintiff needs to establish either intentional discrimination or an inferential case of discriminatory intent.[27]Title VII also requires the plaintiff to establish that the compared jobs have similar requirements and responsibilities.[28]The court identified the same insufficiencies in Spencer’s claims of discrimination as it did for her Equal Pay Act claim.[29]


Ultimately, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment, dismissing both of Spencer’s claims. The court held that Spencer had not established a prima facie case for either her Equal Pay Act claim of her Title VII sex-based discrimination claim and thus presented no genuine issue of material fact. 

[1]No. 17-2453 (4th Cir. Mar. 19, 2019).

[2]Id. at *3. 



[5]Id. at *1, *3. 

[6] *1.

[7] *3. 

[8] *6.

[9] *9, *11 (emphasis in original). 

[10] *11. 

[11] *3, *13. 

[12] *10. 

[13] *11.

[14] *14.

[15] *15.

[16] *11–12. 

[17] *10–12.

[18] *4. 

[19] *5.

[20] *6–8.


[22] *8.

[23] *9. 

[24] *10. 

[25] *

[26] *

[27] *12.

[28] *13.