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Hickethier v. School District of Cornell

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

July 27, 2018

CAROLINE HICKETHIER, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF CORNELL, WISCONSIN, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          JAMES D. PETERSON DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Caroline Hickethier, an English teacher in the School District of Cornell, Wisconsin, alleges that the school district is paying her significantly less than comparable male teachers, in violation of the Equal Pay Act. The school district moves for summary judgment. Dkt. 19. The school district has adduced evidence that the pay disparity is because of a factor other than sex, and Hickethier fails to adduce evidence to the contrary. So the court will grant summary judgment in the school district's favor.

         UNDISPUTED FACTS

         The court begins with an observation: some of Hickethier's responses to the school district's proposed facts purport to dispute the proposed fact but do not cite to evidence supporting Hickethier's version of the fact, contrary to the court's procedures on motions for summary judgment. See Dkt. 10, at 10, 14. The court has accepted a proposed fact as undisputed where neither side disputes it, and where the proponent cites to admissible evidence in support of the fact, and the other party offers no evidence in response.

         The following facts are undisputed except where noted.

         Cornell is a small town located in rural Northern Wisconsin. Like many rural school districts, the School District of Cornell faces declining enrollment. It expects 107 students to enroll in its high school for the coming school year, down nearly a third from 15 years ago.

         Also like many rural school districts, the School District of Cornell faces difficulties finding and retaining quality teachers. One difficulty stems from the low demand for courses in particular subjects. For example, the school district wants to offer elective chemistry courses, and therefore needs a teacher certified to teach chemistry. But because of the small class size, the school district cannot afford to hire a full-time chemistry teacher; it must either find a chemistry teacher willing to work part-time, or it must find a teacher certified in both chemistry and some other subject so that the teacher can teach full-time.

         Another difficulty that the school district faces is teacher pay. In the past, the school district used a salary schedule that determined teachers' salaries based primarily on their graduate-level educational credits and years of experience. This salary schedule was the product of collective bargaining with the local teachers' union; the court will refer to it as the “old model.” In 2014, after the passage of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, which altered public employees' collective bargaining rights, the school district established a new compensation model. The new model establishes a base wage for teachers and allows for supplemental pay based on graduate-level educational credits and years of experience, similar to the old model. But it also allows for “other incentives” to be provided “as needed” on an individual basis. Dkt. 22-1. For example, the school district may provide “hiring bonuses, special pay for specific accomplishments or projects, [or] incentives for positions with limited candidate pools.” Id. New teachers hired by the school district in 2014 or later are paid under the new model. Teachers who were already working at the school district in 2014 have been paid under whichever model gives them a higher salary.

         The school district also provides its employees with benefits, including health insurance. If an employee declines health insurance coverage, the school district pays the employee the amount of the premium. The school district's superintendent believes that under the Affordable Care Act, “the School District can deny health insurance to up to five percent [of its employees] or five employees, whichever is greater.” Dkt. 22, ¶ 51. When the school district “denies” an employee health insurance coverage in this way, it adds the amount of the premium, less a few thousand dollars, to the employee's annual salary.[1]

         Once school district employees retire, they receive a monthly pension. The pension is administered not by the school district but by the Wisconsin retirement system. The amount of an employee's monthly pension is based, in part, on the employee's three highest years of salary earnings.

         With this background, the court now turns to the three teachers at issue in this suit: Hickethier and the two male comparators that she has identified, Richard Erickson and Steven Parker. All three teach middle and high school students in Cornell.

         Caroline Hickethier.

         Hickethier joined the school district in 1989, after graduating from college with a degree in English. In 1998, Hickethier obtained a masters of arts in education while still working for the school district. She also has 31 additional educational credits. She is certified to teach English, which is what she does for the school district. Since the passage of Act 10, Hickethier has continued to be paid under the old model, which provides her with a higher salary than the new model would. For the 2015-2016 school year, Hickethier received a salary of $57, 487.15. She also declined health insurance coverage, so she received an extra $17, 400. For the 2016-2017 school year, Hickethier received a salary of $59, 000. And she declined health insurance coverage in exchange for $18, 000. For the 2017-2018 school year, Hickethier received a salary of $60, 400. Once again, she declined health insurance coverage, so she received an extra $19, 760.

         Richard ...


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