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Oracle Women Score Major Win in Court Battle Over Equal Pay

Joel Rosenblatt and Robert Burnson

(Bloomberg) -- Three female employees at Oracle Corp. scored a major victory in court, gaining the right to represent thousands of others in a gender-discrimination lawsuit over pay, a legal milestone that has eluded women at other tech titans.

A California state judge certified the class action Thursday, allowing the lawsuit to advance on behalf of more than 4,000 women who claim the database giant pays men more for doing the same job.

“Whether the jobs at issue in this case are substantially equal or similar is a question of fact for a jury,” California Superior Court Judge V. Raymond Swope in Redwood City said in the 25-page ruling, rejecting Oracle’s claim that each is an individual case because people in the same job code don’t perform substantially similar work.

“This is just a procedural step unrelated to the merits of the case and we look forward to trying those in court,” Oracle said Friday in an email.

The ruling gives the women critical leverage in pursuing the case under the state’s Equal Pay Act.

“This case will help ensure that women are paid fairly at Oracle, and we hope, throughout the tech industry,” Jim Finberg, a lawyer representing the women, said in an email.

Women at technology companies who have turned to the courts to transform their pay and treatment in the workplace have faced difficulty gaining traction, just like their female counterparts in more traditional industries, from retail to finance. The U.S. Supreme Court set a high bar in its 2011 decision that blocked 1.5 million female workers at Walmart Inc. from pursuing their discrimination claims as a group.

Female engineers at both Twitter Inc. and Microsoft Corp. failed to persuade judges to let their gender-bias cases proceed as class actions and those rulings were upheld on appeal.

”Courts seem hesitant to certify classes alleging gender discrimination more broadly,” said Jason Lohr, a lawyer who has filed such suits. “Fortunately, the California legislature has made it easier to bring class-wide claims based upon pay disparities. While not a perfect way to resolve gender inequality in the workplace, it’s progress.”

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Uber Technologies Inc. paid $10 million in 2018 to settle pay discrimination and harassment claims brought on behalf of more than 400 female and minority engineers. Google is fighting another suit filed under California’s Equal Pay Act -- one of the strongest measures of its kind nationwide. That case may be the next battle over class-action status.

The case against Oracle was filed by former company engineer Sue Petersen and two other women, all of whom worked at PeopleSoft Corp. before it was acquired by Oracle in 2005.

They claim that Oracle for years has paid women less than men for “substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions.” To bolster their bid for class-action status, the plaintiffs emphasized that company-wide compensation is determined at Oracle’s headquarters in Redwood Shores, California.

Oracle argued that the lawsuit wrongly compares women and men tagged with the same job codes even though such coding doesn’t mean the work requires similar skills, effort or responsibility, because Oracle’s products and services vary so widely.

Relying on the codes doesn’t “account for the tools or programming languages an employee must master, the hours her work requires, or the number and complexity of the sub-areas of a product for which she is responsible,” the company said in a court filing.

In a separate ruling, Swope dealt Oracle another blow when he refused to toss out a study, commissioned by the plaintiffs, that found women at the company earned 13% less than their male counterparts. The study was done by a UC-Irvine economics professor David Neumark.“Professor Neumark had a reasonable basis for his opinions that education, years of prior job experience, tenure at Oracle, and performance review scores do not explain the gender pay gap faced by women in the same job code as men,” the judge wrote.

Oracle is also fighting a complaint over gender-pay disparities brought by the U.S. Labor Department in the waning days of the Obama administration. The agency claims the company owes women and minorities $400 million in what it says is “the biggest enforcement case” it’s ever brought against a federal contractor.

The case is Jewett v. Oracle America Inc., 17-CIV-02669, California Superior Court, County of San Mateo (Redwood City).

(Updates with company comment in fourth paragraph.)

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