Mother of Young Children Can Pursue Sex-bias Claim against WellPoint

March 30, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a WellPoint employee can pursue her sex discrimination claim that she was denied a promotion because she has four young children.

In reversing a lower court decision, the appellate court noted that the Supreme Court and several circuits, including its own, have confirmed that the assumption that a woman will perform her job less well due to her presumed family obligations is a form of sex-stereotyping and that adverse job actions on that basis constitute sex discrimination. The court rejected a district court’s requirement that a supervisor’s words to Laurie Chadwick explicitly indicate that Chadwick’s sex was the basis for denying her promotion (for example, use of the phrase “because you are a woman,” or something similar).

The appellate court concluded that a jury could reasonably determine that a sex-based stereotype was behind a supervisor’s explanation to Chadwick that, “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.” The supervisor’s comment that, “It was nothing you did or didn’t do,” was particularly telling, according to the court’s opinion.

Chadwick was hired by WellPoint in 1997, and was promoted in 1999 to the position of “Recovery Specialist II,” which involved the pursuit of overpayment claims and claims for reimbursement from third parties. In 2006, encouraged by her supervisor, she applied for a promotion to a management position entitled “Recovery Specialist Lead” or “Team Lead.”

According to the opinion, because Chadwick was already performing several of the responsibilities of the Team Lead position and based on her supervisor’s comments, Chadwick believed she was the frontrunner for the position. In addition, on her most recent performance evaluation she had scored a 4.40 out of a possible 5.00 points.

Another in-house candidate, also female, had only held the Recovery Specialist II position for a year, and had scored lower than Chadwick on her most recent performance review, receiving a 3.84 out of a possible 5.0 points. The promotion was given to the other candidate.

At the time of the promotion decision, Chadwick was the mother of an eleven-year-old son and six-year-old triplets. The supervisor who made the promotion decision did not know that Chadwick was the mother of young triplets until shortly before the promotion decision was made.

Chadwick alleged that WellPoint denied her the promotion based on the sex-based stereotype that mothers, particularly those with young children, neglect their work duties in favor of their presumed childcare obligations.

In addition to the explanation for why she was not chosen for the promotion, the supervisor who made the promotion decision told Chadwich that if the three interviewers were in her position, they would feel overwhelmed. She also told Chadwick that, “there would be something better down the road,” and that Chadwick would look back and say “it’s a good thing that that opportunity didn’t work out because I’m happier with this down the road.”

         

The appellate court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The case is Chadwick v. WellPoint Inc.

«