A recent decision out of a Maryland federal court offers a simple, yet important, reminder for employers: do not make employment decisions because an employee has taken, is on, or might take maternity leave. EEOC v. Dimensions Healthcare Sys., No. 15-2342 (D. Md. Sept. 2, 2016).
Cassandra Crawford worked for Dimensions Healthcare System (DHS) from May 2007 until 2014. She started as an appeals coordinator in DHS’s Patient Financial Services (PFS) department. In 2012, DHS management asked Crawford if she would like to be promoted to a team leader position. Under DHS policy, employees must apply for vacant positions. Company practice was to offer promotions to existing employees and then have the employees apply in order to make the promotion effective. Following this process, Crawford became a team leader, and held the position until she resigned in 2014. During that period, from January 2014 to April 2014, Crawford was on maternity leave.
On October 1, 2014, DHS posted two management position vacancies on the company’s intranet. Around this time, management encouraged a male employee to apply for a team leader position. When that employee attempted to apply for the position, there was no team leader vacancy posted. The two management positions were listed, however. The employee applied for one of the management jobs and was later “informally” offered both vacant management positions.
Crawford learned of the management vacancies in late 2014 after the male employee had been selected for one of the positions. Crawford told management that she should have gotten the promotion because she was the team lead, which is one level removed from the management position, whereas the male employee was two levels removed.
DHS said that the other employee’s management background was the reason he was selected. A member of DHS management also explained that one of the reasons Crawford was not selected was because she was “on maternity leave for a while.”
After Crawford filed a charge of discrimination, the EEOC sued, claiming that DHS unlawfully discriminated against Crawford on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
The Court denied DHS’s motion for summary judgment, stating that a jury could find that the statement about Crawford’s maternity leave was direct evidence of sex discrimination. The same management official demoted another employee shortly after she returned from maternity leave, not wanting to touch pregnancy “with a ten-foot pole.”
DHS argued that the claim should fail because Crawford did not apply for either management position. The Court rejected this argument because of the company’s promotion practice and because Crawford’s application would have been futile. The Court also rejected DHS’s argument that Crawford was not qualified for the positions and the other employee was more qualified because there was no basis for the first argument and the second argument was a question for the jury. As the Court summarized, “the evidence pointing to Crawford’s superior qualifications, DHS’s reliance on a hiring policy it did not usually follow, and questionable post-hoc explanations for choosing [the male employee] over Crawford, preclude summary judgment.” The lesson here is not: don’t make statements that reveal unlawful motives. While that is certainly helpful in litigation, it misses the point. The real lesson is that employers should train employees to not make decisions based on unlawful reasons.