The Supreme Court has vacated a ruling in favor of a Fresno woman who had sued the county Office of Education over unequal pay, because one of the judges whose vote helped swing the case in her favor died before the decision was handed down.
The opinion issued Monday from the high court said that the 9th Circuit Court had erred in counting Judge Stephen Reinhardt among the majority opinion in the case of Aileen Rizo vs. Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino, as he died 11 days before the decision was announced.
“That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death,” the opinion stated. “But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.”
The 9th Circuit Court had included a footnote in its 2018 ruling that voting on the case had been completed before Reinhardt’s death.
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“Prior to his death, Judge Reinhardt fully participated in this case and authored this opinion. The majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc court prior to his death,” the ruling noted.
Reinhardt was the author of the 6-5 decision. The Supreme Court noted that it is “generally understood that a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.”
Rizo filed a lawsuit against Yovino after learning that her pay as a math consultant with the county was much lower than a male colleague’s who had been hired later than Rizo. The 9th Circuit ruling found that employers cannot base pay on prior salary alone or in combination with other factors.
“To hold otherwise – to allow employers to capitalize on the persistence of the wage gap and perpetuate that gap ad infinitum – would be contrary to the text and history of the Equal Pay Act, and would vitiate the very purpose for which the Act stands,” the ruling stated.
Dan Siegel, counsel for Rizo, said he was surprised that the high court made a decision not on the merits of the case but on the issue of the judge’s death. The case had been on the Supreme Court docket six times.
Reinhardt “didn’t make the decision after he died,” Siegel said. “It’s just that the clerk’s office didn’t publish it till after he died.”
Siegel said Rizo will be able to pursue her claim of damages on the Fresno County level, and that if the 9th Circuit Court holds up its prior ruling, the case could land back in the high court.
Rizo ran against Jim Patterson for a state assembly seat in 2018 but lost to the incumbent. She said Tuesday that the Supreme Court’s decision constitutes a delay in the decision of her case, but that the substance of it is still moving forward.
“The County Superintendent of Schools has had a long time to do the right thing and this isn’t it,” Rizo said.
Attorney for Yovino, Michael Woods, said in a statement that his office was pleased with the court’s decision, and reaffirmed the county’s commitment to equal treatment of its male and female employees.
“We petitioned for certiorari because we remain confident that the policy of determining salaries by the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools (FCSS), which was in effect through December 31, 2015, complied with all applicable laws,” Woods said. “FCSS’ policy was applied in a gender-neutral manner to more than 3,000 employees over 17 years, it was objective, and it was effective in attracting qualified employees. It was also similar to policies used by many other employers.”