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Iowa Supreme Court reverses jury verdict in DMACC pay discrimination case

by Rox Laird | February 5, 2024

Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) paid a female employee less than a male employee in a comparable position, but the pay differential did not amount to illegal discrimination, according to a Feb. 2 opinion by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Sandra Selden, an Application Support Analyst 2 in the DMACC information technology department, sued the college for pay discrimination after she discovered she was paid substantially less than a male coworker in the same position, and in addition she claimed she was denied a promotion in retaliation for her complaint about the difference in pay.

A Polk County jury awarded Selden $1.4 million in damages for wage discrimination and retaliation, which included damages for emotional distress on both claims. The district court subsequently granted DMACC’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the emotional distress damages related to the wage discrimination claim, concluding that emotional distress damages are not recoverable on equal-pay claims, which reduced the award to $657,946.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Edward Mansfield, reversed and remanded the case saying the district court should have directed a verdict for DMACC on both counts.

“We conclude today that the record does not contain substantial evidence of an illegal — as opposed to unfair — pay practice,” Justice Mansfield wrote. “The employer demonstrated without evidence to the contrary that the pay gap was due to gender-neutral factors.”

The Court disagreed with Selden’s argument that she was discriminated against because she started out at a lower percentage on the pay scale for the position in 2013, the time she was hired, than the percentage on the pay scale for the position in 1998 when the male employee, Bryan Tjaden, was hired 15 years earlier. In addition to questioning Selden’s calculation of the pay-scale comparisons, the Court questioned whether the starting salary for an employee hired in 1998 can be compared to the starting salary of someone hired in 2013.

“Even if it can,” Justice Mansfield wrote, “DMACC offered unrebutted evidence that market conditions for hiring information technology (IT) personnel were more demanding in 1998 and that Tjaden had more relevant experience than Selden when each of them was hired.” That evidence included the fact that it was a “sellers’ market” in 1998 for internet technology workers, and Tjaden was able to negotiate a starting salary equal to what he was paid at his previous job.

The Court disagreed with Selden’s argument that DMACC failed to prove that it placed Tjaden at a higher level on the pay scale in 1998 because of his superior experience or market conditions, noting that documentary evidence from the personnel file indicates that DMACC valued him for having 13 years of experience in information systems and a “strong technical background.”

The Court also agreed with DMACC’s argument that Selden failed to prove her retaliation claim under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, finding there was not substantial evidence to support a finding that a motivating factor in the college’s decision not to consider her for a promotion was the fact that she had complained to the college about the pay differential between her and Tjaden.

“The undisputed evidence in this case establishes that Selden was screened out for the supervisor position because she lacked the required degree,” Justice Mansfield wrote. “All the candidates who lacked a degree in computer science or a related field were screened out, and the person who was ultimately hired had such a degree.”

[Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode attorneys Randall Armentrout, Katie Graham, and Haley Hermanson represent Des Moines Area Community College.]

 

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