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By: Jeffrey A. Hord
The iconic U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) is rarely handed a defeat on the soccer pitch, having won four FIFA Women’s World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals in the past 30 years. However, last Friday, a federal district court judge dismissed the USWNT’s claims under the Equal Pay Act (EPA) in its ongoing lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).
In its lawsuit, the USWNT alleged different types of discriminatory treatment, but the core of the lawsuit is that they were paid less than the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team for performing similar work. Asserting that the treatment violated the EPA (and Title VII), the USWNT sought more than $66 million in damages…or, the amount the men would have earned if the Men’s National Team had achieved the exact level of success the USWNT has attained in recent years.
In its motion for summary judgment, USSF argued that the players’ claims should be dismissed because both the Men’s National Team and the Women’s National Team had negotiated their own pay and working conditions in a series of collective bargaining agreements (CBA) which reflected the two groups’ different preferences. For example, the USWNT’s CBA emphasized guarantees for the players in the form of fixed salaries, whereas the men’s CBA created a compensation structure much more heavily based on incentives.
In granting USSF’s motion, Judge R. Gary Klausner effectively ruled that the USWNT voluntarily chose their own payment structure when negotiating the CBA and, while it may have turned out to be less lucrative, they are bound by the terms of the CBA. Judge Klausner also dismissed that portion of the USWNT’s Title VII claim which cited “turf disparity” as an example of allegedly unequal working conditions. The Court found that, based on the USWNT’s evidence, there was no way a jury could conclude USSF had “intentionally discriminated against the USWNT” by subjecting them to substandard turf surfaces more frequently than the Men’s National Team.
The only claims to survive Friday’s ruling were the players’ claims about unequal treatment with respect to travel conditions (specifically, charter flights and hotels) and support services (specifically, medical and training support). Unless the case resolves, the case will now proceed to trial on those issues.
While it remains to be seen whether Judge Klausner’s Order will survive appeal, this ruling nonetheless reinforces a well-settled legal principle: courts will not allow a party to a contract – even Olympic heroes and World Cup champions – to escape the terms of a contract knowingly agreed upon.
 Under the EPA, female plaintiffs have the burden of showing they performed substantially equal work as their male counterparts, under similar working conditions, and that the male workers were paid more.
 A spokesperson for the USWNT has already confirmed the players’ intention to file an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.