California Federal Court Grants USSF’s Summary Judgment Motion in Women’s Soccer Equal Pay Act Case

Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the defendant U.S. Soccer Federation’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ Equal Pay Act (EPA) claims.1 The case gained attention in recent months following the U.S. women’s national soccer team victory at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  

The Court’s Analysis in Dismissing Plaintiffs’ EPA, Title VII Compensation Discrimination Claims

The plaintiffs, who include a number of the U.S. women’s national soccer team players, filed a collective action complaint on March 8, 2019, alleging compensation discrimination and disparate treatment claims under the EPA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The court issued its decision after considering cross motions for summary judgment filed by both parties. The court granted the defendant’s motion with respect to plaintiffs’ EPA claims, and, partial summary judgment with respect to the Title VII disparate treatment claim.  

Specifically, the court determined that plaintiffs failed to establish one of the requirements of their prima facie EPA claim. In order to establish a violation of the EPA, the court highlighted that the plaintiffs were required to prove that (1) they performed substantially equal work to that performed by the male players, (2) that the work was performed under similar working conditions, and (3) that the male players were paid more than the plaintiffs. The court took issue with the last of these elements and held that the plaintiffs failed to establish that they were paid less than the men’s team.

Indeed, the determinative issue, as articulated by the court, was “whether MNT players were paid more than WNT players.”2  In analyzing this question, the court reviewed, in detail, the bargaining negotiations between the USSF and the plaintiffs’ union since 2012.3 After reviewing the bargaining history, the court determined that the plaintiffs had prioritized different forms of compensation during contract negotiations, which accounted for the contrasting collective bargaining agreements between the men and women’s teams.4 The chief argument raised by the plaintiffs was that they were not paid pursuant to the same performance-based bonus system as those applicable to male players—for performance at the World Cup and other games and tournaments. Plaintiffs argued that had they been subject to the same bonus structure as the one articulated in the men’s contract, they would have made significantly more than they did under their collective bargaining agreement. On this basis, the plaintiffs argued that they were compensated at a different wage rate than the male team for performing comparable work.

The court disagreed with plaintiffs’ argument and emphasized that the differences between the men and women’s collective bargaining agreements related to the plaintiffs’ preference for a “fixed pay” contract rather than a “performance pay” contract.5 Generally speaking, the men’s contract was considered to be a “performance pay” contract, which provided greater bonuses based on performance at the World Cup and other games and tournaments. As described by the court, the plaintiffs’ contract was more akin to a “fixed pay” contract, which provided certain guaranteed compensation to plaintiffs regardless of game performance, such as annual base salaries, severance and other benefits, forms of compensation which were not included in the men’s contract.  

Moreover, the court lent credence to the defendant’s expert, who determined that when total compensation was considered—meaning “total compensation paid to the players under the terms of the respective CBAs”—the plaintiffs’ earned more money than their male counterparts “both on a cumulative and an average per-game basis.”6  In the court’s view, “[m]erely comparing what [female] players received under their own CBA with what they would have received under the [male players’] CBA discounts the value that the team placed on the guaranteed benefits they receive under their agreement, which they opted for at the expense of higher performance-based bonuses.”7

The court declined to grant the defendant’s summary judgment motion with respect to certain of the discrete disparate treatment discrimination claims relating primarily to plaintiffs’ working conditions as compared to the men’s team. More specifically, the court concluded that plaintiffs raised a dispute of material fact as to whether the alleged lesser manner in which the women’s team traveled—whether by commercial or chartered plane—and their hotel accommodations represented unlawful gender discrimination in violation of Title VII when compared to the travel and other benefits provided to the men’s team.8  

The Road to Appeal

One week following the court’s decision, the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking an entry of final judgment on the court’s summary judgment decision with respect to the EPA claims, and an application to stay the trial on the remaining Title VII disparate treatment claims. On May 15, 2020, the court denied plaintiffs’ stay application and continued the trial to September 15, 2020.  The court will hear the plaintiffs’ motion for final judgment on the EPA claims on June 8, 2020. If granted, the motion would permit the plaintiffs to immediately appeal the court’s summary judgment decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  

See Footnotes

1 Morgan v. United States Soccer Fed'n, Inc., No. 2:19-cv-0 1717-RGK-AGR, (C.D. Cal. May 1, 2020). 

2 Id. at 16.

3 “This history of negotiations between the parties demonstrates that the WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT, and that the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for other benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players. Accordingly, Plaintiffs cannot now retroactively deem their CBA worse than the MNT CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the MNT's pay-to­ play structure when they themselves rejected such a structure.” Id. at 19.

4 Id. at 16–20.

5 “Plaintiffs ask the Court to find an EPA violation because the WNT CBA provides for lower bonuses in these categories of compensation than the MNT CBA. But this approach ignores other benefits received by WNT players, such as guaranteed annual salaries and severance pay-benefits that MNT players do not receive. To consider these bonus provisions in isolation would run afoul of the EPA, which expressly defines ‘wages’ to include all forms of compensation, including fringe benefits.” Id. at 18.

6 Id. at 16. “Defendant contends that when total compensation is considered, it is apparent that WNT players received more money than MNT players on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis. Indeed, Defendant's expert opines that from 2015 to 2019, payments to the WNT totaled approximately $24 million and averaged $220,747 per game, whereas payments to the MNT totaled approximately $18 million and averaged $212,639 per game.” Id.

7 Id. at 20.  “This approach—merely comparing what each team would have made under the other team's CBA—is untenable in this case because it ignores the reality that the MNT and WNT bargained for different agreements which reflect different preferences, and that the WNT explicitly rejected the terms they now seek to retroactively impose on themselves . . . it was asking for all of the upsides of the MNT CBA (namely, higher bonuses) without any of the drawbacks (e.g., no base salary).” Id. at 19.

8 Id. at 29-31.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.