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An Appellate Victory for Working Moms

By all accounts, Laurie Chadwick had been a stellar employee in the Maine office of insurance company Wellpoint Inc. Hired in 1997, she was promoted in 1999 to the position of recovery specialist II with responsibility for pursuing overpayment claims and third-party reimbursements. In her 2005 performance evaluation, she received excellent reviews and scored 4.40 out of a possible 5 points. So when a management position opened in 2006, Chadwick applied.

One other employee also applied, Donna Ouelette. But Chadwick was confident she was the front runner. She had been in her job much longer than Ouelette and had scored higher than her in her evaluation. In fact, she was already performing several of the duties of the management position and was encouraged by her supervisor to apply. But when the final decision was made, Wellpoint chose Ouelette over Chadwick.

One other fact distinguished Chadwick from Ouelette: Chadwick was a working mom. At the time the decision was made, Chadwick was the mother of an 11-year-old son and six-year-old triplets. No one ever suggested that her parenting detracted from her work. In fact, her husband was their children's primary caretaker and stayed home with them while she was at work.

Chadwick sued for sex discrimination, alleging that her employer failed to promote her because of a sex-based stereotype that working mothers neglect their jobs in favor of their childcare responsibilities. A federal judge in Maine dismissed her case on summary judgment and she appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Yesterday, the 1st Circuit reinstated her case, finding that there was ample evidence for a jury to find that Chadwick was bypassed for promotion because of sex-based stereotyping.

Unlawful sex discrimination occurs when an employer takes an adverse job action on the assumption that a woman, because she is a woman, will neglect her job responsibilities in favor of her presumed childcare responsibilities. ... [A]n employer is not free to assume that a woman, because she is a woman, will necessarily be a poor worker because of family responsibilities. The essence of Title VII in this context is that women have the right to prove their mettle in the work arena without the burden of stereotypes regarding whether they can fulfill their responsibilities.

The 1st Circuit found possible evidence of unlawful discrimination in comments by those who made the promotion decision -- particularly Chadwick's supervisor, Nanci Miller, the primary decisionmaker. Miller had been unaware that Chadwick had triplets until just two months before making the final decision. Her reaction upon learning of the children was to send Chadwick an e-mail saying, "Oh my -- I did not know you had triplets. Bless you!"

When Chadwick later asked Miller why she did not get the promotion, Miller responded, "It was nothing you did or didn't do. It was just that you're going to school, you have the kids and you just have a lot on your plate right now."

Miller's comments combined with other facts provided sufficient evidence for a jury to find discrimination, the 1st Circuit said. While Chadwick has not yet proven that there was discrimination, the court said, she "has presented sufficient evidence of sex-based stereotyping to have her day in court." And with that, Chadwick has scored a victory for working mothers everywhere.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 27, 2009 at 02:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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