Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Clarifies Framework for Equal Pay Act Claims in Chartwell Law Victory


Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an Opinion in the case of LaThenia Joy Baker v. Upson Regional Medical Center, Case No. 22-111381 (March 8, 2024). The case involved federal law claims under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), which amended part of the Fair Labor Standards Act with the intent of ridding the workplace of pay disparity based on sex, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a trial court ruling from the Honorable Tilman E. Self, III, of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. Upson Regional Medical Center (Upson) was represented by Robert Luskin and Graham Newsome, of Chartwell Law’s Atlanta office.

Dr. Baker began working at Upson in March 2015 as a physician OBGYN. At that time, Dr. Baker had been a practicing physician for two and a half years and did not have any certifications or fellowships. In addition to her base salary, signing bonus, moving expenses, and student loan reimbursement, Dr. Baker was eligible for incentive compensation based on her daily output for medical services provided. Following contract negotiations between the parties and their attorneys, Upson provided Dr. Baker a tiered bonus compensation structure, allowing her the ability to ramp up her practice as a new OBGYN and earn bonus compensation at a lower threshold. A male OBGYN physician who began working at Upson at around the same time as Dr. Baker was offered a higher bonus structure. This disparity in the two physicians’ bonus structures ultimately formed the basis for Dr. Baker’s lawsuit, filed on July 14, 2020.

On March 17, 2022, Judge Self granted Dr. Baker’s motion for summary judgment, finding the Title VII claim to be time-barred and focused the majority of his order on the EPA claims. The district court’s analysis focused on Dr. Baker’s allegation that the disparity in her initial bonus structure and that of the male physician was because of her gender. The district court held that Dr. Baker failed to prove a prima facie case of discrimination under the EPA, and Upson did prove that the disparity was due to a “differential based on any factor other than sex” to show that it did not violate the EPA. Upson argued, and the district court agreed, that the initial bonus structures were different because Dr. Baker’s structure allowed her to ramp up her practice and earn bonuses at a lower threshold. Furthermore, Dr. Baker’s initial bonus structure was the result of an arm’s length negotiation between the parties and their attorneys. The district court found that the record showed Upsons relied on multiple factors other than gender to set Dr. Baker’s bonus structure.

Dr. Baker filed an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit on April 18, 2022, and the parties presented oral argument on July 20, 2023, to the Honorable William Pryor, Chief Judge, the Honorable Jill Pryor, Circuit Judge, and the Honorable David Proctor, District Judge sitting by designation. In a per curiam opinion, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

In doing so, the Court also clarified the standard for EPA claims at the summary judgment stage; first, a plaintiff must only meet the “fairly strict standard” of proving that substantially similar work was performed for less pay. Once this prima facie case has been satisfied, “the burden of both production and persuasion shifts to the employer to show that the pay differential was justified” under one of the EPA’s four affirmative defenses. No pretext analysis follows an employer’s burden of proof and persuasion relating to evidence of an affirmative defense. The question a trial court must answer is “whether the defendant has shown that the evidence is undisputed and that no reasonable juror could find sex was a factor in the pay decision.”