Veterinary pathologist sues Zoetis for pay discrimination

Lawsuit alleges that Dr. Frances Yvonne Schulman was grossly underpaid

Published: March 18, 2022
Photo courtesy of Hugh Baran
Dr. Frances Yvonne Schulman is suing Zoetis for gender-based pay discrimination.

A veterinary pathologist is suing Zoetis Reference Laboratories in a claim involving pay and gender discrimination filed this week in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Dr. Frances Yvonne Schulman of New Hampshire, an anatomic pathologist, alleges that she was paid about $105,000 less than one male colleague and $70,000 less than a second male colleague, both of whom had far fewer years of experience than she. The three pathologists were hired by Zoetis, a large international animal health company headquartered in New Jersey, around the same time period.

The suit, assigned to Judge Julien Xavier Neals and Magistrate Judge Leda D. Wettre, alleges violations of the federal Equal Pay Act and Title VII, as well as New Jersey equal pay and anti-discrimination laws.

When Schulman discovered the pay inequity, she raised the issue with the Zoetis' human resources department and company officials, only to be rebuffed, according to the lawsuit. She resigned on Nov. 4, 2021, after a little more than a year on the job.

In a news release from Schulman's legal counsel, the veterinarian said she was surprised to learn that she was making so much less than her colleagues but believed that the discrepancy would be rectified. It wasn't: "Instead, the company told me they wouldn't change my salary. The wage gap thrives in secrecy, and so I feel it's my responsibility to take the fight to court — for myself and for all women workers, especially for those who don't have as many resources to get justice." 

Schulman isn't commenting on the case directly with media, on the advice of her lawyers. Zoetis isn't commenting, either. "As a matter of policy, we don't comment on pending litigation matters," Bill Price, vice president of corporate communications, said by email.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount of compensation, including for unpaid wages, legal fees and emotional distress. A dollar amount is not specified.

Alleged pay disparity arose after acquisitions

Educated at Harvard University and Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Schulman began working in veterinary pathology in 1988 and has been a board-certified specialist in the field since 1992, according to the suit. She went to Zoetis from ZNLabs, which was among the first of several acquisitions between October 2019 and February 2020. During that time, Zoetis snapped up several of the nation's largest regional laboratories: Phoenix Central Laboratory, ZNLabs and Ethos Diagnostic Science.

Together, they comprise Zoetis Reference Labs, based in New Jersey.

The suit provides this account of Schulman's experience: Schulman transitioned from ZNLabs to Zoetis, working from her home office in New Hampshire, in August 2020. She was promised an annual salary of $125,000 plus a yearly bonus based on her pay and other benefits.

In brief

Two other pathologists, Drs. Eugene "EJ" Ehrhart and Samuel Jennings, were hired by Zoetis around the same time, following the company's acquisition of Ethos. Schulman, Ehrhart and Jennings were tasked with the same job responsibilities at Zoetis: Evaluate and analyze biopsy specimens, and write reports that include their histologic descriptions, diagnoses, pictures, case comments and anything else to help submitting veterinarians identify the type or cause of an illness, make a prognosis and guide treatment. 

However, Ehrhart and Jennings were paid much more than Schulman. Zoetis paid Ehrhart $230,000 a year, and Jennings, $195,000 a year.

Zoetis states commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion

Zoetis' website has a page describing the company's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, which says in part, "We strive to create an environment where colleagues feel valued and cared for ..." and states that 50% of the executive team are women. In supporting an inclusive culture, the company said its benefits "include development and mentorship programs, flexible work arrangements, educational assistance, mental health support, and family-friendly benefits like parental leave, adoption and infertility benefits." Pay parity is not mentioned.

One of Schulman's attorneys is Hugh Baran of the employment law firm Kakalec Law PLLC, who's joined on the case with a New Jersey firm, Harrison, Harrison & Associates, Ltd., and the National Women's Law Center.

By phone on Wednesday, Baran said that not only was Schulman "grossly underpaid," she never received her promised bonus from Zoetis. "Certainly, that also reflects the discrepancy," he said, pointing out that the bonus, since it was to be based on pay, would have been lower than that of the higher-paid men.

Gender-based pay discrepancies aren't uncommon. What's unusual in Schulman's case, Baran said, is that she found out. He declined to disclose how.

"It doesn't really matter how she found out," Baran said. "The point is, she found out, and the company refused to correct it."

He continued: "In most cases, people don't have the information about their pay to be able to make this kind of claim. But that could change as a trend develops in enacting salary transparency laws, he said.

'Equal skill, equal effort'

According to the suit, Zoetis determined the pathologists' respective pay at the time they were hired, rather than hiring them into positions for which the pay was already established. Their positions required "equal skill, equal effort, equal responsibility, and equal expertise as Dr. Schulman's position," the suit says. 

Their compensation was "not greater than Dr. Schulman's because of shift differentials, education, training, or experience," nor was it due to seniority or based on merit, the suit elaborated.

Schulman has been a board-certified pathologist since 1992. She has six more years of experience than Ehrhart and 19 more years of experience than Jennings, according to the suit.

Asked whether Zoetis' defense might be rooted in the fact that the company acquired all three pathologists from different companies and at different pay rates, Baran, her lawyer paused. "Look, we're going to see what Zoetis' defense to this lawsuit is, if they have one," Baran said. "It would be premature for me to comment on it. We believe they were obligated to rectify the gross pay disparity here, and they refused to do so.

"We are confident in Dr. Schulman's claims," he continued. "We wouldn't be involved otherwise."

Before initiating the suit, Schulman first took her case to the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, an agency established by the state to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

Her case, filed with the New Hampshire commission on Aug. 9, alleged that Zoetis violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the federal Equal Pay Act, as well as the New Hampshire Equal Pay Act and New Hampshire Law Against Discrimination. The charges were cross-filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The commission, which does not have the resources to prosecute every case it receives, allows parties to move their cases to court, as happened with Schulman's claim. "In most cases, people seek the right to sue after 180 days," Baran explained.

The state commission ended its review of the claim on Feb. 15, six months after having received it, and issued Schulman a "right to sue" letter three weeks later.

Zoetis has yet to be served with the suit. Once served, the company has 21 days to respond in court, however, extensions could be granted. 

Baran said it's hard to say how long it will take to resolve the case. "Equal pay cases do go to trial, and sometimes they are settled," he said.

By way of example, he reflected on two recent high-profile pay disparity cases: "A couple of weeks ago, women's soccer settled pay litigation, and a trial just concluded last week in a different equal pay case in Florida."

The soccer case involved a six-year pay discrimination battle that was resolved on Feb. 22 when U.S. Soccer agreed to pay $24 million to 28 former and current female players in an attempt to equalize pay between the men's and women's national teams. The Florida case involved a female professor at the University of Miami, who said she was underpaid by $28,000 relative to a male colleague who performed similar work. A federal jury rejected her claims in early March.

June 6, 2022, update: In a response filed June 6, Zoetis asked New Jersey federal court Judge Julien X. Neils to partially dismiss the pay and gender discrimination lawsuit on grounds that two alleged violations of New Jersey statute do not apply because Dr. Frances Yvonne Schulman worked from her New Hampshire home and was hired by Zoetis Reference Labs, a division based in Louisville, Kentucky. Employment laws in New Jersey, where Zoetis is headquartered, include some of the strongest pay equity provisions in the country. 

July 17, 2023, update: U.S. District Court Judge Michael E. Farbiarz denied Zoetis' motion. In an order dated July 14, the judge said New Jersey anti-discrimination laws can apply to a nonresidents who work remotely for a company based in the state. Fabiarz, to whom the case was reassigned in June, cited several state Supreme Court decisions, including a 2010 ruling in which justices stated that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is intended to "eradicate the cancer of discrimination. As such, it should be liberally construed." 

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