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Iowa Supreme Court Reverses Jury Award of $1.4M in Wage Discrimination Decision

The Supreme Court of Iowa recently vacated a jury award of nearly 1.4 million dollars, an award that could have otherwise been tripled, finding that the plaintiff failed to properly prove her claims for either sex-based wage discrimination or retaliation.

The lawsuit alleged sex discrimination in wages and went to a jury despite the defendant’s attempts to have the matter decided by the court, resulting in the jury granting the daunting award. Upon review, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the jury should have never received the case at all.

In Selden v. Des Moines Area Community College, Sandra Selden alleged that she had been hired by DMACC in 2013 in a computer programming job. After working the job for six years, she learned that a male colleague with the same job title was making more than $20,000 more per year than she. Upon complaining about the pay disparity, she was told that the disparity was due to seniority and pre-employment experience.

Three months after making these complaints, Selden applied for a supervisory position with DMACC. The job posting required a specific type of college degree, which Selden did not possess. However, she felt that her prior, practical experience with DMACC made up for the lack of the degree. DMACC disagreed and screened her out of the application process due to lacking the degree. The person who ultimately got the position did possess the required degree.

Selden then filed a charge with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and upon receiving a right-to-sue letter, sued DMACC for both sex-discrimination for her lesser wages compared to her male colleague, and retaliation, claiming that she was only screened out as revenge for complaining about her lesser wages.

Despite DMACC’s efforts to get the case thrown out, Selden was allowed to present her case to a jury, who ultimately awarded her a verdict of $1.4 million, accounting for backpay, and separate awards for emotional distress for both the discrimination and retaliation claims. The jury further found that DMACC’s conduct was “willful”, which would have entitled Selden to up to triple damages under the applicable Iowa laws.

Before the Iowa Supreme Court, DMACC argued that there were legitimate reasons for the pay disparity and for Selden being screened out of consideration for the supervisor role. Regarding pay disparity, they argued that the male colleague had been with DMACC for 15 years prior to Selden’s hiring, and further had been hired during the very competitive period of companies seeking computer programmers to help them transition through the Y2K period. The male colleague also had more extensive computer experience prior to his hire in 1998 than Selden did during her own hire. DMACC argued that between his greater initial experience, the competitive market in which he was hired, and his seniority, there were extensive bases for a pay disparity that were not based on sex.

DMACC further argued that there had been no retaliation, that the degree listed in the job posting was a requirement (one fulfilled by the successful candidate), and that Selden’s job experience was not a proper substitute for the degree required.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, vacating the jury’s verdict. The Court noted that “there may be circumstances where a wage disparity is justified, such as a seniority system.” The Court recognized affirmative defenses available to employers that not only included a properly implemented seniority system, but also merit systems, systems that measure quantity or quality of production, and even a “catch-all” for any non-sex-based measure of employment evaluation. The Court found that the pay disparity was accounted for by gender-neutral systems, and specifically rejected Selden’s argument that the amount of time that had passed between she and her male colleague’s respective hirings could support her arguments. The Court noted that it would be a paradox if “the more time that separates a comparator from the plaintiff, [it would be harder] for an employer to defend itself and easier [for a plaintiff] to prove their case.”

The Court also found that Selden failed to prove any connection between her wage complaints and her exclusion from the supervisor application. Selden failed to prove that her complaints were a motivating factor for her exclusion, especially in light of the degree requirement for the position.

At the end of the day, DMACC persevered against a harrowing jury verdict, serving as a staunch reminder that employers must be very cautious to keep their hiring, promotion, and wage practices gender-neutral at risk of huge verdicts.

Questions? Contact John Simmons in our Davenport office at 563-333-9102 or by email

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