UO will ask for a review of appeals court decision in pay suit

A courtroom gavel

The University of Oregon will ask a federal appellate court to reconsider a decision that would allow an equal pay lawsuit filed by a UO psychology professor to proceed to trial.

A split three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier ruled that the suit, filed by professor Jennifer Freyd, should be allowed to go before a jury on three of the original 10 claims. The UO will ask that a larger panel of 11 judges rehear the case in what is known as an en banc review.

Kevin Reed, the UO’s general counsel, said in a statement that the university decided to pursue the review because it believes the two-judge majority misapplied the law, potentially setting a precedent that could harm future efforts to retain top faculty members and do great financial damage to the institution.

“The University of Oregon is proud of Professor Freyd and her contributions to the field of psychology; however, we cannot allow that admiration to eclipse the fact that the Ninth Circuit's decision is bad law which could come back to haunt the university, our students, and the taxpayers of Oregon,” Reed wrote. “If this decision is allowed to stand, it could limit the ability of all universities to fairly compensate and retain faculty and staff of all genders.”

Reed noted that a recently completed, comprehensive gender equity study of the university, jointly commissioned by the administration and the UO faculty union, found no systemic biases in pay practices involving female faculty members on the tenure track. Previously, a federal class-action lawsuit that went to trial in 1984 found that the UO had not engaged in gender discrimination.

The appeals court’s three-judge panel erred by not looking beyond a common core of tasks all faculty members take on and considering whether the “unique demands of the individual workplaces of senior faculty with divergent research and program interests” render their jobs substantially different, Reed wrote. He said that analysis is required by longstanding precedent.

“The two-judge majority of the Ninth Circuit ignored decades of clear authority,” Reed said in his statement. “These errors of law will hamstring efforts by the university to retain their most eminent professors and cause great financial harm to the university.”

Reed said Freyd’s pay was in the top 9 percent of all tenure-track faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences prior to her retirement earlier this year. He said Freyd was a valued member of the faculty who was fairly compensated and supported by the university.

“The University of Oregon wholeheartedly supports the principle of gender equity in pay and all aspects of university life,” said Reed. “The UO is committed to following federal and state equal pay laws and adheres to the principle that a person's race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion or other protected status should not play a role, directly or indirectly, in their compensation.”

While the university will seek review of the decision by a larger panel of the appeals court, Reed said it would continue to seek a resolution of the dispute outside the courtroom.

“No one is well served by a legal battle between the university and a respected faculty member who has given much to the university and its students,” he said.