Three women from Oracle Corp. allege that the database company systematically pays men more than women. They are seeking class-action status so they can represent over 4,000 other women who may be affected, but class-action status can be hard to achieve, especially in employment law cases.
The women claim that, for years, Oracle has underpaid women for "substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions." They called special attention to the fact that, company-wide, compensation decisions are made at Oracle's headquarters.
The women are suing under the California Equal Pay Act, but similar claims could be brought under the federal Equal Pay Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination.
Indeed, the U.S. Labor Department has brought a federal case over the alleged pay disparities, and Oracle continues to fight that case.
The proposed class action relies in part on job codes to show that particular jobs are substantially similar but compensated differently.
Oracle contends that, because its products and services vary widely, the job codes aren't actually indicative of anything. Two jobs with the same code might require different skills, effort or responsibility, according to the company.
The codes don't "account for the tools or programming languages an employee must master, the hours her work requires, or the number and complexity of the sub-areas of a product for which she is responsible," the company stated in court documents.
Class actions after Wal-Mart v. Dukes
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court made it much more complex for groups of employees to band together in class actions. In the case of Wal-Mart v. Dukes, approximately 1.5 million women attempted to form a class to challenge alleged gender discrimination at Walmart stores across the United States.
The high court ruled that the 1.5 million women simply didn't have enough in common to constitute an appropriate class. For example, the proposed class included both current and former employees who were complaining about alleged discrimination perpetrated by local supervisors.
Since the allegations were that hundreds of individual, local supervisors engaged in discrimination that was not directed by the company, the millions of cases didn't have a single legal or factual basis for the courts to address.
Wal-Mart v. Dukes made it much more difficult to bring large class actions, although not impossible. Proposed classes must take care to allege a single factual or legal scenario that applies to every member of the class.
In the Oracle case, the plaintiffs are attempting to argue that the pay of everyone in the class was determined centrally at Oracle headquarters.