By Todd A. Newman
In a decision of significance to veterinary practices nationwide, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of a veterinarian’s Equal Pay Act claim against her employer. The ruling provides guidance to practice owners by illustrating how courts apply the “equal pay for equal work” mandate in the veterinary setting. The case is Chiaramonte v. Animal Medical Center, No. 16-0478-cv (2nd Cir. 2017).
The plaintiff, Deirdre Chiaramonte, DVM, joined the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in 2002 as a staff veterinarian. Located in New York, AMC is a nonprofit teaching hospital offering a multitude of specialty services. In 2004, Dr. Chiaramonte became board certified in internal medicine and was promoted to the position of board certified internist.
Later that year, Chiaramonte relinquished her existing clinical and teaching duties to assume a full-time position on AMC’s President’s Council, a concierge or “VIP” service for high-level donors, board members and others who pay a premium for the service.
Chiaramonte initially was assigned as the primary care veterinarian for new President’s Council clients. In this role, her practice was limited to work typically performed by a general practitioner, and she often carried out technician tasks, such as drawing blood, administering oral and injectable medications, inserting IV catheters and obtaining fecal samples. She also served as the clients’ liaison to AMC.
Chiaramonte did not perform surgery, inpatient procedures or other specialized procedures. If a patient required additional care, she referred them to appropriate specialists for diagnostic tests and treatments. If a patient needed frequent visits to a particular specialist, then the specialist often assumed responsibility as the primary care provider.
Chiaramonte also served as sole director of AMC’s Rehab Center, which offers a suite of rehabilitative services to companion animals. While she occasionally evaluated patients and provided rehabilitative treatments in the Rehab Center, technicians performed the overwhelming majority of such work. Rehab Center treatments included, among other things, cryotherapy, laser therapy and therapeutic ultrasound.
In her roles with AMC, Chiaramonte dedicated a significant amount of time to such functions as fundraising, administration, marketing and media relations. As such, she maintained a smaller-than-average patient load.
Lawsuit in Federal District Court
After working at AMC for 10 years, Chiaramonte lost her job in the midst of a management shakeup. In turn, she sued AMC in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for allegedly violating the federal Equal Pay Act, or EPA. (She also sued under New York’s equal pay law, which, for all practical purposes, is substantively identical to the EPA.) The EPA, in sum, prohibits gender discrimination by requiring equal pay for equal work.
As the basis for her claim, Chiaramonte asserted that AMC paid her less than five male comparators: (1) a board-certified cardiologist who ran AMC’s cardiology services and oversaw all research at AMC, (2) a board-certified radiologist who ran AMC’s diagnostic imaging service, (3) a veterinary dermatologist who saw approximately 10 patients per day, (4) a board-certified neurologist and neurosurgeon who ran AMC’s neurology service and residency program and (5) a board-certified internal medicine specialist who saw between 10 and 15 patients per day and who served as medical director of AMC’s special care unit.
Chiaramonte asserted that her work was substantially equal to theirs because they all either (i) ran a department in a sought-after specialty or (ii) engaged in relationship building, development or other fundraising responsibilities. Chiaramonte emphasized that her job was just as important to AMC’s bottom line as theirs, claiming that this warranted equal pay under the law.
The District Court rejected Chiaramonte’s argument, explaining that job content, not job significance, was the correct measure for determining whether she performed “equal work.” In the court’s view, Chiaramonte failed this test because each of the comparators “practiced in an area of medicine that involved different experience, training, education and ability than Plaintiff’s practice.”
Chiaramonte’s arguments “miss the mark,” explained the court, “because they essentially require the Court to embrace the principle that the work of all veterinarians is equivalent, thereby ignoring distinctions among the different specialties in veterinary medicine.” Accordingly, after highlighting the many differences between Chiaramonte’s role and those of the comparators, the court dismissed her case on summary judgment.
Appeal to the Second Circuit
When Chiaramonte filed an appeal with the Second Circuit, she asserted that the District Court erred by concluding that she did not perform work substantially equal to that of her better-paid male colleagues. The Second Circuit roundly rejected her appeal.
In explaining its decision, the Second Circuit noted that Chiaramonte’s responsibilities as director of AMC’s President’s Council entailed “primarily public-relations-type duties” and “basic treatments” that were “parallel to those performed by a general practitioner.” Similarly, explained the Second Circuit, the “overwhelming majority” of Chiaramonte’s work at the Rehab Center “could be performed by technicians and aides.”
By contrast, the Second Circuit noted that the comparators “practiced in specialized areas of veterinary medicine and performed complex procedures.” Unlike these specialists, the Second Circuit continued, Chiaramonte had no responsibility for supervising interns or other veterinarians, contributed little if any scholarly research, and carried a low patient load.
Concluding that the District Court had applied the facts and the law correctly, the Second Circuit affirmed its decision to dismiss Chiaramonte’s case.
Chiaramonte serves as a reminder that veterinary practices are covered by the EPA. Thus, practice owners employing men and women in similar capacities should take care to satisfy the “equal pay for equal work” mandate. In this regard, differences in compensation should be attributable to differences in responsibilities, based on a particularized comparison of job content or performance. Moreover, some states have equal pay laws that are more restrictive than the EPA and, as such, may impose more stringent obligations. As EPA claims are on the rise, consulting with experienced employment counsel is advisable.
Todd A. Newman works closely with veterinary practices. He is president and owner of a Salisbury, Mass., law firm (.toddnewmanlaw.com) that focuses on business, employment, labor and litigation matters. Submit questions about labor, employment or business laws affecting your veterinary practice to email@example.com.