SHEPHERD, Circuit Judge.
Appellant Ronicka Schottel, a former employee at Nebraska State College System's (NSCS) Peru State College, brought Equal Pay Act and Title VII claims against NSCS after she received a terminal contract in 2018. The district court
Schottel began her employment as a criminal justice instructor at Peru State in 2012. At the time of her hiring, Schottel had two master's degrees and three years' experience as a probation officer but lacked formal teaching experience. Peru State selected Schottel over a male candidate, Daniel Hayes, who had applied for the same available position. Hayes had one master's degree, ten years' experience in corrections work, and five years' teaching experience as a criminal justice adjunct faculty member at Peru State. The hiring committee tasked with the selection of instructors considered applicants' education, field experience, teaching experience, interview performance, what they could "bring to the team," and whether they had "diverse thought process[es]." Dr. Greg Galardi, the Dean of the School of Professional Studies, advocated for Schottel's hiring based on her strong interview performance, unique background in probation work, and the diversity that she would bring to the School of Professional Studies. Shortly after Schottel's hiring, another criminal justice instructor position became available, and Peru State hired Hayes.
Both Schottel and Hayes began teaching in August 2012, with Schottel receiving a $48,000 annual salary and Hayes receiving a $49,500 annual salary. Schottel's salary remained approximately $1,500 less than Hayes's for five years. Dr. Todd Drew, the then-Vice President of Academic Affairs, set the salaries for both Schottel and Hayes. In an email contemporaneous to Hayes's hiring sent to several colleagues, including Peru State's president and director of human resources, Drew explained the pay differential: "[Hayes] has substantial adjunct teaching experience with us and more professional experience that is directly related to the discipline taught." When Schottel was promoted to assistant professor for the 2017-18 academic year, she received a $3,000 raise, thus earning roughly $1,319 more than Hayes per year at that point.
In April 2018, Schottel met with Timothy Borchers, who had succeeded Drew as Vice President of Academic Affairs, to discuss her potential advancement toward tenure. During the meeting, Schottel raised concerns about Galardi, her direct supervisor, including concerns about his comments to her, emails he sent to her, and his physical demeanor toward her. Schottel also mentioned Hayes being paid more than her prior to her promotion. Borchers did not share Schottel's comments about Galardi with him. Schottel later met with Galardi, during which they generally discussed the tenure track but not her concerns about him.
Early in May 2018, a student in one of Schottel's classes approached Galardi and shared concerns about passing Schottel's class after Schottel had refused to accept a late assignment. Galardi responded that Schottel had discretion to refuse late assignments and that he would not interfere with her grading decision. The student then expressed his concern about the quality of the course and Schottel's teaching performance. Specifically, he told Galardi that the weekly class never met for the entirety of its scheduled 2 hours and 45 minutes and that it had only lasted longer than 1 hour about four times that semester. The student also stated that Schottel had cancelled class four times during the semester, "barely taught the class," and did not follow the course syllabus. Galardi subsequently contacted another student enrolled in the class whom he trusted. This other student confirmed that Schottel dismissed every class session early but also mentioned that another Peru State instructor regularly let class out early. No further information was provided regarding how early or frequently the other instructor prematurely dismissed class. Galardi relayed his conversations with both students to Borchers.
On May 24, 2018, Borchers notified Schottel that her employment would terminate in May 2019. He listed Schottel's "[p]ast practices of dismissing classes early, cancelling classes and failing to follow the syllabus." Peru State issued her a terminal contract, which allowed her to continue teaching through the 2018-19 academic year but would not renew thereafter.
In July 2019, after Schottel filed a charge of discrimination with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission, she brought this action alleging an Equal Pay Act claim, as well as claims of gender-based harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII. NSCS filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Schottel's claims, which the district court granted.
Schottel asserts that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on her Equal Pay Act claim and Title VII claims of gender discrimination and retaliation. "We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, construing the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party."
Schottel first argues that the district court erroneously granted summary judgment in NSCS's favor on her Equal Pay Act claim and gender discrimination claim based on unequal pay. "The [Equal Pay Act] prohibits pay discrimination on the basis of sex. A plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case that women were paid less than men in the same establishment for equal work requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility and performed under similar working conditions."
The parties do not dispute that Hayes was paid more for the same position from when Schottel and Hayes were hired until Schottel's promotion in 2017; thus, it is undisputed that Schottel has set forth a prima facie case. The parties dispute, however, whether NSCS satisfied its burden to prove that the pay differential was based on a factor other than sex. We agree with the district court that NSCS met its burden. NSCS offered sufficient evidence that Hayes received a higher salary because he had significantly more experience than Schottel.
Schottel maintains that her being hired before Hayes demonstrates her superior experience. This assumption is erroneous, as Schottel conflates Peru State's hiring and salary decisions. The record contains Peru State's reasons for hiring Schottel before Hayes, which differ from its reasons for paying her approximately three percent less than Hayes. Schottel acknowledges that Peru State's hiring decisions, led by a hiring committee, are based on both objective and subjective criteria, and the record reflects Peru State's focus on the subjective criteria, including Schottel's interview performance and the diversity that she would bring to the faculty, which supported the school's choice to hire her first. In contrast, Schottel does not dispute that salary decisions, generally made by the vice president of academic affairs, are based solely on objective criteria. Schottel also highlights her 2017 promotion as evidence of her qualifications, but we agree with NSCS that the decision to promote Schottel is not evidence of a superior resume when she was hired five years earlier.
The district court appropriately resolved this claim at the summary judgment stage because the determination that Hayes had more experience than Schottel did not require weighing the evidence and no reasonable jury could have found that the slight pay differential was based on Schottel's sex. This case does not present a scenario in which the male employee had significantly fewer qualifications or capabilities than the lesser-paid female employee.
Schottel next argues that NSCS violated Title VII because it issued her a terminal contract in retaliation for her complaints about Galardi and unequal pay. Title VII contains an antiretaliation provision that prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because the employee opposed a practice made unlawful by Title VII.
We agree with the district court that Schottel engaged in protected activity by complaining to Borchers about the pay differential, and she suffered a materially adverse employment act when she received a terminal contract. The parties focus their dispute, however, on whether Schottel proved a causal link between her complaints to Borchers and the later terminal contract. Schottel "must prove that her opposition to unlawful discrimination was the `but for' cause of the employer's adverse action."
Schottel's reliance on temporal proximity falls short of establishing causation. Schottel highlights the fact that Galardi's investigation began less than three weeks after her meeting with Borchers. However, "temporal proximity alone is insufficient to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to whether conduct was retaliatory."
Even if Schottel proves causation, Schottel fails to put forth evidence demonstrating pretext in response to NSCS's legitimate reason for issuing her a terminal contract. "To show pretext, the [employee] must both discredit [the employer's] proffered reasons for the alleged retaliatory action and show that the circumstances permit drawing a reasonable inference that retaliation was the real reason for the adverse employment action."
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the district court.