Title VII does not include “care-giver” as a separate category for purposes of protection against discrimination. However, in a decision involving the failure to promote a woman with four young children, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reminded us that one important premise of Title VII’s gender discrimination provision 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 [work-related] responsibilities.” Chadwick v. Wellpoint, Inc., 1st Circ. No. 08-1685, March 26, 2009.

Laurie Chadwick brought a claim of gender discrimination against her employer, WellPoint, Inc. and Anthem Health Plans of Maine (together, “WellPoint”), an insurance company, after she was denied a promotion in 2006 as Team Leader of a group of Recovery Specialists. At the time of her application for promotion, Chadwick had worked for WellPoint as a Recovery Specialist for seven years, and had received a score of 4.4 out of a maximum of 5.0 on her most recent performance review. Donna Ouelette, the individual who was promoted instead, had been a Recovery Specialist for one year, and had received an evaluation of 3.84.

In 2006, Chadwick was the mother of an 11-year-old and 6-year-old triplets. At the same time, she was taking one course each semester at a local university. There is no indication that Chadwick’s parental responsibilities had an adverse impact on her job performance; in fact, Chadwick’s husband was the primary care-taker of all four children. Shortly before the promotion interviews, Nanci Miller, Chadwick’s immediate supervisor, who also was the decision-maker with respect to the promotion, sent an e-mail to Chadwick, commenting on the fact that she had recently learned that Chadwick was the mother of triplets. (The e-mail opened with the phrase, “Oh, my!”) During the interviews, Linda Brink, Chadwick’s former supervisor, mentioned Chadwick’s parental status. Further, and most notably, when Chadwick subsequently asked why she had not received the promoted, Miller stated that, “It wasn’t anything 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.” In that same discussion, Miller stated to Chadwick that, “if [the interviewers] were in your position, they would feel overwhelmed.”

In response to Chadwick’s claim, WellPoint filed a motion for summary judgment. The lower court granted the motion on the basis that nothing in Miller’s words showed that Chadwick was not promoted because of her gender. On review of that decision, the 1st Circuit reversed, stating that a plaintiff is entitled to prove discrimination by circumstantial evidence alone, and that Chadwick was not required to show an explicit statement from WellPoint that Chadwick’s gender was the basis for the adverse decision. Instead, the court found that a jury could infer, from Miller’s statements that “you have the kids” and “you just have a lot on your plate right now,” that Chadwick wasn’t denied the promotion because of her job performance, but because Miller – and therefore WellPoint – assumed that as a woman with four young children, Chadwick might not “give her all” to the job. As the court pointed out, “the essence of employment discrimination is penalizing a worker not for something she did but for something she simply is.”

This case was decided by the First Circuit under a summary judgment standard (where all inferences must be drawn in favor of the plaintiff), and therefore is not a decision of ultimate liability. However, the opinion makes an important point. In simple terms, an employer is free to discipline, fail to promote, or fire an employee whose performance suffers due to personal obligations or interests, including childcare, without necessarily incurring liability under Title VII. However (and this is an important “however”), an employer is not free to assume that a woman – simply because she is a woman – will necessarily be a less productive worker simply because of family responsibilities.