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Former Women’s Team Goalkeeper Sues US Soccer for Equal Pay Act Violation

Hope Solo, who was a goalkeeper for the US Women’s National Team from 2000 to 2016, has sued the United States Soccer Federation, the official governing body for the sport of soccer in the United States. Her complaint, filed on August 24, 2018, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, charges that U.S. Soccer violated the Equal Pay Act, and Title VII by paying the members of the women’s team less than it pays the members of the men’s team. According to the complaint, the members of the women’s team perform substantially equal or similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and perform under similar working conditions, as the members of the men’s team.

Courts applying the Equal Pay Act in the past have recognized that differences in exposure and prestige between men’s and women’s teams justify pay disparities in coaching jobs. In the most well-known case, the Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the University of Southern California in a case brought by its women’s basketball coach, who was paid substantially less than the men’s basketball coach. The court explained that the substantial difference in pay was justified in part by the difference in media attention and revenue generated by the two teams. Stanley v. University of Southern California, 178 F.3d 1069 (9th Cir. 1999). Although some female coaches have succeeded on Equal Pay Act claims (see Perdue v. City University of New York, 13 F.Supp.2d 326 (E.D.N.Y. 1998)), most have not. The EEOC published an enforcement guidance on the subject in 1997, which advised that pay disparities between male and female coaches were of concern.

Solo has a stronger case for equal pay than the women’s coaches who lost their cases, because the Women’s National Team has performed much better than the Men’s National Team, and, at least according to her complaint, has generated substantially more revenue for U.S. Soccer.

Last year, U.S. Soccer entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the players on the Women’s National Team. A complaint alleging discriminatory pay practices that several of the players, including Solo, filed with the EEOC in 2016, remains outstanding. Both the agreement and the EEOC complaint may affect the individual lawsuit that Solo has filed.

The case has been assigned to United States Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu. Under the rules of the Northern District, the case will be assigned to an Article III United States District Judge, if the parties do not consent to Judge Ryu’s continuing to handle the case.

The Northern District of California seems like an odd venue for the lawsuit. The complaint asserts that Solo is a resident of North Carolina, and that U.S. Soccer is chartered under New York law, with a principal place of business in Chicago. Although the complaint alleges that U.S. Soccer does “substantial business” in the Northern District, it does not explain what that business consists of. However, the federal venue statute (28 U.S.C. section 1391), provides that venue is proper where the defendant resides, or where substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred. An entity like U.S. Soccer “resides,” for purposes of the statute, in any district where it is subject to personal jurisdiction.