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Lawsuit claims UNM violated Equal Pay Act

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Two years ago, a federal agency determined that the University of New Mexico had been paying similarly qualified female professors less than their male peers.

UNM at the time challenged the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission findings, contending that it already had invested heavily in bridging gaps and attributing some disparities to experience, field of study and performance.

But three UNM female faculty members have since used the EEOC’s findings to underpin a lawsuit alleging that the state’s largest university violated the state’s Fair Pay for Women Act, the federal Equal Pay Act and the New Mexico Human Rights Act.

Their lawsuit, filed earlier this year and moved last month to federal court, alleges that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated “were paid less than members of the opposite sex performing similar work, under similar conditions, utilizing similar skills, effort, and responsibility.”

UNM recently filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the complaint, arguing in part that the women had not exhausted all administrative remedies and that some claims have exceeded the statute of limitations.

A spokeswoman said UNM could not comment on the pending litigation.

The lawsuit seeks payment for the compensation loss claims, plus punitive and other damages and attorneys’ fees.

The EEOC has provided each plaintiff a “letter of determination … that they had been injured by UNM’s unfair payments of wages” and provided an amount by which each has been underpaid, the suit says.

Melissa Axelrod, a full professor in the linguistics department, has a loss claim of $106,777; Gail Houston, a full professor in the English department, has a claim of $1,531; and Julie Shigekuni, a professor in the English department, has a claim worth $43,456.

Shigekuni said in an interview that the letter of determination arrived unsolicited in her mailbox last summer. She said she had not participated in the EEOC’s investigation, but that its findings confirmed what she had determined years ago about her compensation.

She said she previously had raised pay inequity concerns with former administrators, who “shot down” her complaint, and she did not further pursue the issue until now.

“I do believe the truth does rise to the surface eventually,” said Shigekuni, adding that she blames the pay disparities primarily on inattention by UNM leadership.

But she said she and other female faculty members who received similar EEOC letters requested a meeting last fall with a high-ranking UNM administrator she would not identify. She said the meeting was not productive, which prompted the suit.

“It would be a gross misstatement to say we’re litigious as a group and we’re enjoying this process,” she said. “I think we all have in common a desire to work at a place where people are treated fairly, and we all believe in the importance of having discussions and taking actions that promote fairness.”

Houston echoed Shigekuni’s sentiment, saying the women felt like they were “patted on the head” by the administration. While she called her dollar claim small, the former chairwoman of the English department said she feels she represents peers who may not feel comfortable coming forward.

“I just feel like it’s just such a slap in the face to these women I’m so proud of and I’ve admired over the years to see being treated that way,” she said.

The professors’ attorney, David Plotsky, said the intent is to show his clients “are representatives of a broader group of affected people” and to get court certification for a class-action lawsuit.

The EEOC’s investigation of gender pay equity for full professors at UNM found “statistical differences in salary” among male and female full professors. The university “failed to articulate a non-discriminatory explanation for the pay disparity that withstood scrutiny,” according to a determination letter signed Oct. 28, 2016, by the director of the agency’s Albuquerque-area office.

The EEOC had reasonable cause to believe that UNM violated the Equal Pay Act by paying female full professors in economics, English, linguistics and marketing less than their male peers from 2008 to 2016, the letter said.

UNM at the time questioned the basis of the claims and noted it had spent $2 million over the preceding four-year period to improve pay equity and would continue working to resolve any disparities based on gender, race or ethnicity.

A spokeswoman said this week that UNM never took any specific action related to the EEOC’s 2016 findings.

“We did not receive the information that would substantiate their suggested remedy,” Cinnamon Blair said.

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