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U.S. Supreme Court

County of Washington v. Gunther, 452 U.S. 161 (1981)

County of Washington v. Gunther

No. 80-429

Argued March 23, 1981

Decided June 8, 1981

452 U.S. 161


While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate in his employment practices on the basis of sex, the last sentence of § 703(h) of Title VII (Bennett Amendment) provides that it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for any employer to differentiate upon the basis of sex in determining the amount of its employees' wages if such differentiation is "authorized" by the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The latter Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex by paying lower wages to employees of one sex than to employees of the other for performing equal work,

"except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex."

Respondents, women who were employed as guards in the female section of petitioner county's jail until this section was closed, filed suit under Title VII for backpay and other relief, alleging, inter alia, that they had been paid lower wages than male guards in the male section of the jail and that part of this differential was attributable to intentional sex discrimination, since the county set the pay scale for female guards, but not for male guards, at a level lower than that warranted by its own survey of outside markets and the worth of the jobs. The District Court rejected this claim, ruling as a matter of law that a sex-based wage discrimination claim cannot be brought under Title VII unless it would satisfy the equal work standard of the Equal Pay Act. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The Bennett Amendment does not restrict Title VII's prohibition of sex-based wage discrimination to claims for equal pay for "equal work." Rather, claims for sex-based wage discrimination can also be brought under Title VII even though no member of the opposite sex holds an equal but higher paying job, provided that the challenged wage rate is not exempted under the Equal Pay Act's affirmative defenses as to wage differentials attributable to seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production, or any other factor other than sex. Pp. 452 U. S. 167-181.

Page 452 U. S. 162

(a) The language of the Bennett Amendment -- barring sex-based wage discrimination claims under Title VII where the pay differential is "authorized" by the Equal Pay Act -- suggests an intention to incorporate into Title VII only the affirmative defenses of the Equal Pay Act, not its prohibitory language requiring equal pay for equal work, which language does not "authorize" anything at all. Nor does this construction of the Amendment render it superfluous. Although the first three affirmative defenses are redundant of provisions elsewhere in § 703(h) of Title VII, the Bennett Amendment guarantees a consistent interpretation of like provisions in both statutes. More importantly, incorporation of the fourth affirmative defense could have significant consequences for Title VII litigation. Pp. 452 U. S. 168-171.

(b) The Bennett Amendment's legislative background is fully consistent with this interpretation, and does not support an alternative ruling. Pp. 452 U. S. 171-176.

(c) Although some of the earlier interpretations of the Bennett Amendment by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may have supported the view that no claim of sex discrimination in compensation may be brought under Title VII except where the Equal Pay Act's "equal work" standard is met, other Commission interpretations frequently adopted the opposite position. And the Commission, in its capacity as amicus curiae, now supports respondents' position. Pp. 452 U. S. 177-178.

(d) Interpretation of the Bennett Amendment as incorporating only the affirmative defenses of the Equal Pay Act draws additional support from the remedial purposes of the statutes, and interpretations of Title VII that deprive victims of discrimination of a remedy, without clear congressional mandate, must be avoided. Pp. 452 U. S. 178-180.

(e) The contention that respondents' interpretation of the Bennett Amendment places the pay structure of virtually every employer and the entire economy at risk and subject to scrutiny by the federal courts is inapplicable here. Respondents contend that the county evaluated the worth of their jobs and determined that they should be paid approximately 95% as much as the male officers; that it paid them only about 70% as much, while paying the male officers the full evaluated worth of their jobs; and that the failure of the county to pay respondents the full evaluated worth of their jobs can be proved to be attributable to intentional sex discrimination. Thus, the suit does not require a court to make its own subjective assessment of the value of the jobs, or to attempt by statistical technique or other method to quantify the effect of sex discrimination on the wage rates. Pp. 452 U. S. 180-181.

602 F.2d 882 and 623 F.2d 1303, affirmed.

Page 452 U. S. 163

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and, STEWART and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 452 U. S. 181.

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