Supreme Court won't review Florida law prof's salary discrimination case

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The United States Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a law professor's challenge of a win for Florida A&M University in her equal pay and sex bias lawsuit against the school.

Jennifer Smith, who teaches federal civil procedure at FAMU as a tenured professor, sued the school in 2014, alleging it paid female professors less than their male counterparts. A federal jury in Tallahassee sided with the school in 2015, determining that sex wasn't a motivating factor in the pay disparities Smith cited.

In her appeal to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Smith cited an internal pay study that FAMU conducted after the verdict, which she said prompted the school to raise salaries of about one-third of the law school faculty after finding that its female law professors were paid less.

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In the school's initial recommendation, Smith’s salary was to be increased to $138,000, nearly matching the highest-paid male associate professor. But FAMU called the male professor an “outlier” and increased Smith’s salary to $125,000 — $5,000 more than other tenured professors whose salaries were adjusted, Smith claimed.

Smith alleged in her appeal that FAMU had committed “fraud on the court regarding (Smith's) salary inequity case,” because after denying her unequal pay claims at the trial court, the school raised salaries for a number of women on the faculty.

The 11th Circuit in an unpublished decision in 2017 said it found no evidence of fraud and upheld the jury's decision. In her petition for certiorari, Smith argued that the court had "made significant law surrounding salary equity adjustments" that conflicts with the Equal Pay Act and perpetuates discrimination.

"What the 11th Circuit really created was a law that allows for employers to label highest paid, which are traditionally men, as outliers," said Smith during an interview with Reuters. She said the "outlier" label gives schools a free pass to discriminate even as they take steps to comply with anti-discrimination rules.

A representative from FAMU did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Maria Santoro of Dennis, Jackson, Martin & Fontela, which represented the school at the 11th Circuit.

Smith, who represented herself during the appeal, said she was disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the 11th Circuit's ruling and concerned that it could have greater implications.

"It was Thurgood Marshall, as well as Clarence Thomas, interestingly enough, (who) have cautioned against ignoring unpublished opinions, because they end up becoming unchallenged law. And I think that will happen in this case," she said.

Still, Smith said she still believes her initial lawsuit brought some benefit, since women as well as some men at FAMU received salary increases, and women began receiving promotions for which they'd previously been denied.

The case is Smith v. Florida A&M University Board of Trustees, U.S., No. 20-1231

For Jennifer Smith: Stephen Michael Smith of the Law Offices of Stephen M. Smith; and Jennifer M. Smith pro se

For the university: Maria A. Santoro of Dennis, Jackson, Martin & Fontela; and Teresa Cooper Ward

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Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at