Seven female law professors win $2.6 million settlement from DU in unequal pay lawsuit

DU professor Lucy Marsh, who began teaching at DU in 1973 and who help lead a discrimination lawsuit against the university, was outside the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse in downtown Denver. Photo by John Herrick

The University of Denver on Thursday reached a settlement with seven female law professors over an unequal pay dispute. 

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Wiley Daniel signed off on a $2.66 million settlement agreement that includes raises and back pay for Sturm College of Law professors who say they were paid less than their male colleges for doing similar work. DU released a statement that said the university is confident in its legal position and now wants to move forward and heal the community. 

The professors and their lawyers who gathered in the Denver courtroom Thursday morning said they hope to encourage more women to stand up and litigate if they suspect they are not being paid fairly.  

“Women shouldn’t have to quit their jobs. They shouldn’t have to move to another employer. They should just do something,” said DU professor Lucy Marsh, who began teaching at DU in 1973 and who helped lead the discrimination lawsuit.  

Women in the U.S. on average earn about 82 percent what men earn for working similar jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This pay gap has led to other lawsuits; digital media company Vice Media and tech giant Google were among the companies to be hit with gender wage gap lawsuits last year. 

The DU case began in 2012 when Ann Scales, a pioneer in feminist legal theory, asked the DU administration whether there was a gender pay gap among the faculty at the law school. In December that year, former Dean Martin Katz released a memo that found the median salary for female law professors would be about $11,000 less than for male full professors after a round of pay raises.

Scales passed away in 2012. But in July 2013, Lucy Marsh took the torch and filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws. DU’s explanation for the gap in pay, according to an August 2015 news release, was that Marsh—who was honored in 2010 with the university’s “Excellence in Teaching” award—was “sub-standard.”

In September 2016, the EEOC sued DU on behalf of Marsh and seven other female law professors arguing that these professors were paid less due to their gender. As of October 2013, the mean salary for female full law professors was nearly $20,000 less than male full professors, according to the filing. This “statistically significant” pay gap was a violation of the federal Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act on gender discrimination, the suit alleged.

“They knew that there was a problem and they didn’t do anything to correct it,” said Mary Jo O’Neill, the Phoenix-based regional attorney for the EEOC who is representing the women. 

The settlement includes monetary damages for seven female full professors who participated in the lawsuit. It also requires DU to increase the 2018 salaries of the seven female professors. One professor who was named in the lawsuit, Sheila Hyatt, passed away last November.  

In a press release, Theresa Ahrens, a spokeswoman for DU, said the settlement will not affect scholarships, financial aid or day-to-day operations of the university. She said the university undertook the settlement process with great seriousness, deliberation and care for all involved.

“While confident in our legal position, we were motivated to action by our strong desire to heal our community and move forward together,” Ahrens said. “We believe this settlement will allow us to collectively focus on a present and a future in which the law school—and the DU community as a whole—can unite under our common values of equity, integrity and opportunity.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado is slightly above the national average for pay equity, with women earning 84 cents for every dollar men earn. In legal occupations, which includes lawyers, clerks and assistants, the gap widens to 60.5 cents on the dollar nationwide.

The professors said if it weren’t for the December 2012 memo on the pay gap, they would not have known how there was a pay gap. They said many workers probably don’t know if they are paid fairly. 

“Lack of transparency enables this kind of discrimination,” said Nancy Ehrenreich, a scholar of feminist legal theory who has taught law at DU for 29 years. 

To get at the transparency issue, the settlement requires DU to publish an annual report on the salaries for tenured, tenure-track, and contract faculty. It also requires them to hire a labor economist to study pay equity. The decree will remain in effect for six years, but may end a year early based on an established record of compliance, according to the settlement.

Ahrens told The Colorado Independent the university considers scholarship, teaching and service when setting salaries. She said DU looks forward to working with the consultant to ensure that the university is evaluating and compensating faculty members fairly.

When closing out the hearing on Thursday, Judge Wiley Daniel spoke about unequal pay as characteristic of the civil rights challenges faced by African Americans.

He said that it is especially important for the Sturm College of Law to honor civil rights laws and make them part of its academic fabric, in part so that students can be advocates for equality. 

“There have been lessons learned by everybody,” said Judge Daniel. “Including the University of Denver.”

Photo: DU professor Lucy Marsh, who began teaching at the University of Denver in 1973 and who help lead a discrimination lawsuit against the university, outside the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse in downtown Denver on May 17, 2018. Photo by John Herrick