Decided May 28, 1980.
Labor — Wage discrimination — Recovery of sex-based wage differentials — Limitation of actions — R.C. 4111.17(E), construed.
The requirement in R.C. 4111.17(E) that actions initiated under R.C. 4111.17(D) for the recovery of sex-based wage differentials from the date of the commencement of the violation "shall be initiated within one year after the date of violation" limits the time in which actions can be brought from the last date of such discrimination, not the time period for which recovery is permitted.
APPEAL from the Court of Appeals for Lucas County.
Darlene A. Featzka, appellant herein, became a full-time employee of the Millcraft Paper Company, appellee herein, on January 3, 1975. Featzka claims she was a full-time employee until May 20, 1976, when she was placed on part-time status. She left her employment at Millcraft in October 1976.
On May 12, 1977, she initiated a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Lucas County against Millcraft alleging that her employer had discriminated against her from October 1975, until May 20, 1976, by paying a male employee a higher wage for equal work in violation of R.C. 4111.17. She made a second claim alleging a breach of contract.
R.C. 4111.17, inter alia, prohibits wage discrimination based on sex. R.C. 4111.17(D) grants an employee a cause of action against an employer who violates the statute. R.C. 4111.17(E) limits this right, stating that "[a]ny action arising under this section shall be initiated within one year after the date of violation."
R.C. 4111.17 states:
"(A) No employer, including the state and political subdivisions thereof, shall discriminate in the payment of wages on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, or ancestry by paying wages to any employee at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to another employee for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar conditions.
"(B) Nothing in this section prohibits an employer from paying wages to one employee at a rate different from that at which he pays another employee for the performance of equal work under similar conditions on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, when the payment is made pursuant to any of the following:
"(1) A seniority system;
"(2) A merit system;
"(3) A system which measures earnings by the quantity or quality of production;
"(4) A wage rate differential determined by any factor other than race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, or ancestry.
"(C) No employer shall reduce the wage rate of any employee in order to comply with this section.
"(D) The director of industrial relations shall carry out, administer, and enforce this section. Any employee discriminated against in violation of this section may sue in any court of competent jurisdiction to recover two times the amount of the difference between the wages actually received and the wages received by a person performing equal work for the employer, from the date of the commencement of the violation, and for costs, including attorney fees. The director may take an assignment of any such wage claim in trust for such employee and sue in his or her behalf. In any civil action under this section, two or more employees of the same employer may join as co-plaintiffs in one action. The director may sue in one action for claims assigned to him by two or more employees of the same employer. No agreement to work for a discriminatory wage constitutes a defense for any civil or criminal action to enforce this section. No employer shall discriminate against any employee because such employee makes a complaint or institutes, or testifies in, any proceeding under this section.
"(E) Any action arising under this section shall be initiated within one year after the date of violation."
The trial court, on motion, entered summary judgment for Millcraft. It held that R.C. 4111.17(E) barred recovery for any differential wages prior to May 12, 1976, one year before the date on which the action was filed. This holding allowed recovery for only six days of wages which was well under the court's jurisdictional amount. The court also held that the contract, which was oral, was unenforceable because it was barred by the statute of frauds.
The Court of Appeals modified and affirmed this decision, holding that the dismissal of the wage discrimination claim was without prejudice because it was based on a lack of jurisdiction. The basis of the court's decision was Evans v. Western Electric Co. (1976), 50 Ohio App.2d 233, which holds, in part, that recovery under R.C. 4111.17 is to be limited under subsection (E) thereof to any wage differential occurring within the one-year period immediately prior to the initiation of an action thereunder.
The cause is now before this court upon the allowance of a motion to certify the record.
Messrs. Winchester, Douglas, Lydy Mollenkamp, Mr. R. Jeffrey Lydy, Messrs. Casey Slaybod, Ms. Julia K. Casey and Mr. Sheldon M. Slaybod, for appellant.
Messrs. Thompson, Hine Flory, Mr. T. Merritt Bumpass, Jr., and Mr. Keith A. Ashmus, for appellee.
The sole issue before this court is whether R.C. 4111.17(E) prohibits appellant's recovery of sex-based wage differentials occurring more than one year prior to the initiation of her action. Basically, we must decide if, in enacting R.C. 4111.17, the General Assembly intended each day of unequal treatment to constitute a separate and severable violation or whether each day is to be considered a part of a continuous violation. In order to construe a statute we must of course determine the legislative intent. As this court stated in the first paragraph of the syllabus in Henry v. Central Natl. Bank (1968), 16 Ohio St.2d 16, "***[i]n determining that intention courts look to the language employed and to the purpose to be accomplished."
R.C. 4111.17(E), standing alone, is arguably an ambiguous provision. Consequently, we must look to the language and purpose of R.C. 4111.17 to determine the meaning and effect of R.C. 4111.17(E).
R.C. 4111.17 is designed to eliminate wage discrimination based on sex, race, and other immutable characteristics. In order to accomplish this goal, the General Assembly, in R.C. 4111.17(D), gave employees a right to sue "to recover two times the amount of the difference between the wages actually received and the wages received by a person performing equal work for the employer, from the date of the commencement of the violation, and for costs, including attorney fees."
The legislature clearly intended, in granting this right of recovery, to provide incentives both for employees to call for the enforcement of the statute and for employers to eliminate the prohibited discrimination. A limitation of recoveries to any wage differentials occurring within a year prior to the commencement of an action would appear to be contrary to these remedial enforcement provisions and, in the absence of a clear expression of legislative intent, we cannot so read R.C. 4111.17(E).
Appellee argues that R.C. 4111.13(C) and (D) show a clear legislative intent to treat violations of R.C. 4111.17 as severable.
R.C. 4111.13 provides, in part:
"(C) No employer shall pay or agree to pay wages at a rate less than the rate applicable under sections 4111.01 to 4111.17 of the Revised Code. Each week or portion thereof for which the employer pays any employee less than the rate applicable under said sections constitutes a separate offense as to each employer.
"(D) No employer shall otherwise violate any provision of sections 4111.01 to 4111.17 of the Revised Code, or any regulation issued thereunder. Each day of violation constitutes a separate offense."
Criminal penalties are assessed for violations of R.C. 4111.13 and 4111.17, pursuant to R.C. 4111.99.
Black's Law Dictionary (5th Ed.) defines "offense" as "[a] felony or misdemeanor; a breach of the criminal laws." The General Assembly in R.C. 4111.17, rather than using the term "offense," used the term "violation." Black's Law Dictionary defines "violation" as a "breach of right, duty, or law." In using the term "violation" rather than "offense" in R.C. 4111.17, the legislature clearly indicated that the severability of offenses provided for in R.C. 4111.13 was not to be applicable to civil actions brought under R.C. 4111.17.
Pursuant to R.C. 4111.17(D), the legislature did provide for recovery "from the date of the commencement of the violation." Use of the word "commencement" indicates a violation of a continuous nature, for the commencement of the violation would not be relevant if each day of violation were severable. By defining "recovery" in terms of commencement of the violation, the legislature clearly indicated its intent to permit recovery from the beginning of the prohibited discrimination until its termination.
Any other interpretation would lead to absurd and unreasonable results in at least two respects. First, if, as in the case at bar, the violation has ceased by the time the employee becomes aware of his rights under R.C. 4111.17, a limitation of recovery will discourage the desirable process of attempting to negotiate a settlement before an action is filed. Second, such an interpretation will encourage the employer to continue violations which exceed a year in duration, for in the second year the employer will decrease the loss he will suffer if an action is then brought under R.C. 4111.17. After two years of continuous violations, the employer will actually benefit from his discrimination. We have often stated that the General Assembly will not be presumed to have intended to enact laws producing unreasonable or absurd results. Canton v. Imperial Bowling Lanes, Inc. (1968), 16 Ohio St.2d 47, paragraph four of the syllabus.
We hold that the requirement in R.C. 4111.17(E) that actions initiated under R.C. 4111.17(D) for the recovery of sexbased wage differentials from the date of the commencement of the violation "shall be initiated within one year after the date of violation" limits the time in which actions can be brought from the last date of such discrimination, not the time period for which recovery is permitted.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
HERBERT, P. BROWN, SWEENEY and LOCHER, JJ., concur.
W. BROWN and HOLMES, JJ., dissent.
The statute under consideration presents certain inequities if interpreted purely from either the standpoint of the employer or of the employee. If interpreted as here by the majority, the employee may continue working for the employer for a number of years at the claimed discriminatory wage rate, and then bring an action for double the differential, which recovery could conceivably be an astronomical amount.
On the other hand, if the section were interpreted so that the employee is limited in bringing the action to one year after the inception of the employment at the unlawful rate, this would grant the employer the unfair advantage of being able to continue the unlawful employment practice indefinitely beyond the one-year period.
These were the considerations of the panel of the Tenth District Court of Appeals when it decided in Evans v. Western Electric Co. (1976), 50 Ohio App.2d 233, that a recovery under R.C. 4111.17 would be limited under subsection (E) thereof to any wage differential occurring within the one-year period immediately prior to the initiation of an action therefor. I prefer to continue to follow that rule.
W. BROWN, J., concurs in the foregoing dissenting opinion.