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Woman psychologist wins potential landmark equal pay lawsuit in Maine

Dr. Clare Mundell's suit is the first known case where a judge made an interpretation of Maine's Equal Pay Law.

BANGOR, Maine — A clinical psychologist in Maine won what could be a landmark case in a lawsuit against her former employer.

On Tuesday, Maine District Judge Lance Walker ruled Acadia Hospital acted illegally when it paid Dr. Clare Mundell nearly half as much as her male peers, who all did the same work. 

Acadia was ordered to pay Mundell three times her back pay. According to Walker's ruling, sometime after her 2017 hiring, Mundell learned through conversations with her coworkers that she and the other female pool psychologist at the hospital were paid $50 per hour, while the two male psychologists were paid $90-$95 per hour.

"By all accounts, all five of Acadia's pool psychologists, including plaintiff, possessed the same fundamental qualifications for the role," Walker wrote in his decision. "They all held doctoral degrees, were licensed to practice psychology in Maine, and had experience and skills in providing psychological services. All five pool psychologists performed the same functions for Acadia. Acadia did not have a seniority system or merit increase system for paying its employees. The summary judgment record suggests that pool psychologists' salaries did not change over time. Acadia claims to set salaries for pool psychologists and other employees based on the fair market value of each employee's services."

One of Mundell's attorneys, Valerie Wicks of Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, said in her research for the case, she found no prior litigation in which a judge made a ruling interpreting Maine's Equal Pay Law

In other words, this ruling was unprecedented.

"There's been a version of the Maine Equal Pay Law on the books since 1949, and Dr. Mundell's case is the first one where we actually have a decision interpreting the law," Wicks explained. She believes Mundell's case could set a standard for future equal pay disputes.

Dmitry Bam, the Maine Law School vice dean, also believed the case broke the mold.

"We hear a lot of data about continued unequal pay by men and women," he said during an interview at the school in Portland. "But because the defenses are pretty strong, there's very little case law establishing how a trial would proceed in these things."

Suzanne Spruce, vice president of communications for Acadia's parent company, Northern Light Health, sent a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine, stating, "Northern Light Health is committed to treating all of its employees, regardless of gender, or any other protected class, fairly and equitably as it works to provide top-quality care to the people of Maine, especially during this pandemic. We disagree with the district court's ruling and intend to appeal."

Mundell hoped her case would spark conversations in more workplaces.

"It's okay to talk about how much you get paid, and it's legal too," she said. "And the only way that we're gonna eliminate pay inequities is if we have these conversations. So, I'm really hoping this will encourage other women to start having these conversations and, actually, will encourage men to start the conversations."

If Mundell v. Acadia Hospital Corp does indeed set a precedent for pay discrimination arguments in the future, it could potentially give a leg up to employees. In his ruling, Walker wrote that it didn't matter if Acadia intended to give unfair, unequal pay to its woman clinical psychologists. 

It mattered only that they did it.

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