U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker speaks to his family, friends, and supporters during his Investiture Ceremony in December of 2018 at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine employers could be forced to track and justify pay differences among their employees under a federal judge’s ruling on Tuesday that found Bangor’s Acadia Hospital violated Maine’s decades-old equal pay law when it paid a female psychologist less than her male counterparts.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker found that the hospital and its parent organization, Northern Light Health, violated the equal pay law when it paid a female psychologist, 59-year-old Clare Mundell of Bangor, $50 per hour to work as a pool psychologist while two male pool psychologists received $90 and $95 per hour.

Mundell sued her former employer in January 2021, and Northern Light later admitted to the pay differences, though it said they were not because of Mundell’s sex. Walker’s decision, unless it is overturned on appeal, means the hospital owes Mundell, who is also a member of the Bangor School Committee, more than $200,000 in back pay and damages.

The hospital plans to appeal the decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. Walker has not yet ruled on whether Acadia discriminated against Mundell on the basis of sex and retaliated against her in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act. Her damage award could increase if she wins on those counts.

Walker’s ruling this week is the first judicial interpretation of Maine’s equal pay statute, according to Mundell’s lawyer. The law bars an employer from paying employees doing comparable work different rates on the basis of sex, but allows differences based on seniority, merit and the shifts employees work. It also explicitly allows employees to disclose their own and others’ wages to ensure equitable pay, as well as ask colleagues about their pay.

Mundell learned of the pay discrepancy in a casual conversation with a male colleague and not from her employer. When she complained, Mundell was told that the human resources department was evaluating salaries in all hospital departments and that she should wait for the evaluation’s outcome to file a formal complaint.

Walker said that his decision “will require employers to track compensation differentials among their employees and to articulate one of the authorized reasons provided by the statute for such pay disparity.”

“This hardly impresses me as an absurd result of a pay equality statute,” said Walker, an appointee of former President Donald Trump. “To the contrary, it strikes me as reasonable that the Legislature would impose the burden of knowledge of employee pay on the employers who do the paying rather than place employees in the untenable position to ferret out what their colleagues of the opposite sex are paid.”

Walker did not say how businesses should track pay disparity.

Maine Department of Labor spokesperson Jessica Picard said the ruling reinforced Maine’s equal pay law and brought attention to it.

“It also calls attention to how the law was strengthened in 2019 to both protect workers’ rights to discuss their pay with each other, and prohibit employers from taking salary history into account when setting compensation for new employees,” she said Wednesday.

Other states allow employers accused of paying men and women differently to defend themselves by showing that pay differences are based on factors other than gender, according to Dmitry Bam, provost at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.

Donald Alexander, a retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice, said Walker’s ruling merely enforces the decades-old state law.

“Hopefully most Maine employers to whom the law applies know and comply with the law,” he said. “Thus, the ruling will give greater attention to the issue of gender-based pay differences for similar work by similarly situated people, and may promote resolution of some other gender based pay differences without court action.

“I see this as an open-and-shut discrimination case recognizing and enforcing the present state of the law — not creating some new law to be further developed on appeal,” Alexander said.