Purdue wins judgment on wage discrimination claims but allegations of FMLA, FSLA violations can proceed

Purdue University and a group of its employees have secured victory on a terminated worker’s wage discrimination claims. However, the former employee’s claims alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and Family and Medical Leave Act by her Purdue supervisors can proceed.

Chief Judge Jon DeGuilio of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana entered partial summary judgment for the university and its employees — as well as partial summary judgment for the suing former employee — Wednesday in Belinda McCarty v. The Trustees of Purdue University, Mary Kathryn Green-Smith, Rick Rodriguez, Julie Kercher-Updike, Gerry McCartney, Gary Desai, and Dan Rhine, 4:19-cv-43.

Plaintiff Belinda McCarty filed the complaint in April 2019, about three months after she was terminated from her position as a software licensing administrator for the West Lafayette school. McCarty had worked for Purdue since 2006 and, during that time, had been placed on two performance improvement plans prior to her termination.

From 2012 to 2019, the years at issue, McCarty received only one merit-based raise. In each of the other years, she was ranked in the bottom 10% of information technology customer service employees — a ranking that, according to the university, did not translate to a merit-based pay increase.

But McCarty alleged she was paid less than a male counterpart, Jim Myers, due to sex discrimination in violation of the Equal Pay Act, the Indiana Minimum Wage Statute and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. She also argued she was not compensated for overtime work in violation of the FLSA and was retaliated against for taking FMLA leave.

DeGuilio found that Purdue had 11th Amendment immunity against all of McCarty’s claims, except for her claim of retaliation for use of family-care leave under the FMLA. The individual defendants, however, were not entitled to immunity, he held.

On McCarty’s FMLA claims, the chief judge found that summary judgment for the defendants was inappropriate because “a reasonable jury could find that her supervisors’ comments regarding her various FMLA leave could be evidence of retaliation.”

McCarty took FMLA on multiple occasions during her employment with Purdue, including after the birth of her children and to care for her sick and dying father. During those times, the court wrote, she was required to work while still putting in for FMLA leave.

Also, her supervisors made comments including, “Wow, you’re out another day?” or, “Did you really need to go to that?” Additionally, her termination came on the day she returned from FMLA leave.

“A jury could certainly find on this record that Ms. McCarty failed to improve her performance after several warnings and this failure would have resulted in her firing independent of any other improper reasons,” DeGuilio wrote. “The Court cannot conclude, however, that a jury would have to reach those conclusions such that summary judgment would be warranted, particularly because retaliation need only be a motivating factor in an adverse action, not the only factor or even the main factor, to support a retaliation claim.”

Likewise as to the FLSA claims against the individual defendants, the chief judge denied summary judgment for both parties due to “several factual disputes” about whether McCarty was an exempt employee.

“For instance, the parties dispute whether decisions regarding software packages and distributions were standardized and required a supervisor’s approval or whether Ms. McCarty made independent decisions regarding the contracts with customers or instead, was following the instructions from supervisors,” he wrote. “Further, it is disputed whether Ms. McCarty made decisions as to whether a particular customer is entitled to access to a product or software.

“When construing all reasonable inferences in favor of both parties,” DeGuilio wrote, “the record before the Court includes differing testimony about Ms. McCarty’s relative freedom from supervision, whether she exercised discretion, and if so, the importance of those decisions and therefore, there is a genuine issue of material fact … .”

But each of McCarty’s claims related to pay discrepancies — alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act, Indiana’s Minimum Wage Statute and Title VII — were resolved in the defendants’ favor. Among other things, the court noted Myers began working at Purdue nine years before McCarty.

“Here, whether or not Purdue has a formal seniority system, it is clear that Mr. Myers’ salary was impacted by his successful experience during the nine years before Ms. McCarty began employment. The Court finds this to be a reasonable differential that is not based on sex and does not believe a reasonable jury could conclude otherwise.”

McCarty is represented by Indianapolis lawyer Jason Ramsland, while the defendants were represented by lawyers with Stuart & Branigin LLP in Lafayette. Indiana Lawyer has reached out to counsel for both parties for comment.

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