Last week, in Ellis v. Google, Inc. a California judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against Google brought on behalf of its female employees, alleging that Google violated the California Equal Pay Act (Labor Code §§ 1197.5, 1194.5) by systematically paying them lower wages than those paid to male employees performing “substantially similar work under similar working conditions.” The complaint also alleged that Google discriminates against its female employees by paying women less than men with similar skills, experience, and duties, by assigning and keeping women in “job ladders and levels with lower compensation ceilings and advancement opportunities,” and promoting women at a slower rate than it does men. While claims of gender bias in tech are not new, this is the first such case brought against Google.
The lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the allegations of the complaint were not specific enough to justify a class-action. In other words, by purporting to bring the action on behalf of “all women employed by Google in California” the complaint was simply too broad. Class actions require that the individual named plaintiffs bring claims that are representative of the group as a whole. The defendant’s liability must be able to be determined by issues common to all class members. Here, because plaintiffs defined their class so broadly, the court found it impossible to say that Google’s liability would depend on issues common to all members. Where it appears individual issues would predominate at trial, a class action is not appropriate.
All of the named plaintiffs here were hired before California’s recent amendments to its Equal Pay Act in 2015 and 2016, which changed the requirement that plaintiffs have performed “equal work” to that of their male counterparts to a requirement that their work need only be “substantially similar” to that performed by men. The court found that two of the named plaintiffs did not adequately state an Equal Pay Act claim under the “equal work” standard in effect at the time of their employment with Google. Conclusory allegations that they performed “substantially equal or similar work” to that performed by their male counterparts did not satisfy the former standard.
The judge has allowed plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaint to narrow their class allegations to “distinguish between female employees who may have valid claims against Google… from those who do not” and to state a claim under the appropriate standard(s). Plaintiffs have indicated they intend to file an amended complaint by early January.