A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine reaffirms that federal law does not prohibit discrimination against employees based on family status and rejects an employee’s attempts to prove sex discrimination based only on the prevalence of certain stereotypes in the modern American workplace.
In Chadwick v. WellPoint, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that her employer engaged in sex discrimination when it denied her a promotion, notwithstanding the fact that the company awarded the position to another woman. The plaintiff claimed that the promotion decision was biased by her supervisors’ assumptions about her obligations as a caregiver of four young children, including 6-year-old triplets. The woman the company promoted had only two children, who were slightly older. As evidence that the decision not to promote her was based on stereotypical views of working mothers, the plaintiff alleged that the decision-maker commented to her, “Oh my—I did not know you had triplets . . . Bless you!” She also claimed that the decisionmaker explained the decision not to promote her by saying, “It was just that you’re going to school, you have the kids, and you just have a lot on your plate right now.”
The plaintiff sued under Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, but does not address discrimination relating to an employee’s family status. She claimed that the company’s decision was based on the stereotypical notion that as a mother of four, she would have primary responsibility for the care of her children, which would threaten to interfere with her job performance. She also offered expert testimony that gender stereotyping in American society is widespread, that the words used in the decisionmaker’s comments to the plaintiff reflected a stereotypical attitude toward working mothers, and that it was unlikely that the decisionmaker would have reacted in the same way to a man with children.
The Court entered summary judgment for the employer because the plaintiff had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that gender discrimination motivated the promotion decision. The plaintiff’s mere assertion that her employer’s decision was driven by “working mother stereotypes” was not adequate to overcome the company’s explanation that it had promoted the candidate it believed had superior qualifications. The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s proposed expert testimony, noting that the expert had never met the decision-maker and had no basis to draw conclusions about that person’s usage of certain terminology. The Court also observed that the existence of stereotyping in society at large cannot be used to establish that a particular individual harbored a bias.
This case serves as a reminder that plaintiffs cannot prevail in discrimination cases based on mere suspicion and innuendo. Plaintiffs must come forward with probative evidence that their employers acted based on impermissible motives or see their claims dismissed.