As with life in general, sometimes it’s best for a manager to keep frustrations over a work situation to himself or herself. This advice was confirmed in a recent decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, when a manager’s comments about the number of expectant mothers in the workforce served as enough evidence of bias to allow a pregnancy discrimination claim to proceed to trial.
In Fassbender v. Correct Care Solutions, LLC, the plaintiff was a medical aide in a Kansas prison. She was terminated for allegedly fraternizing with inmates, but she sued for discrimination, claiming that she was actually fired due to her pregnancy. She claimed that when her supervisor learned of her condition, she complained about not knowing how she was going to handle all of the impending maternity leaves. The employer argued that this was only an expression of frustration over the work situation and not direct evidence of discriminatory animus against pregnant persons. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment for the employer.
On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision on this point, remanding the matter for jury trial. While agreeing with the employer that the supervisor’s comments were not direct evidence of discrimination, the court found that they provided enough circumstantial evidence of intent to allow the claim to proceed. The plaintiff did not need to show that the supervisor was biased against pregnant persons, only that pregnancy could have been a motivating factor in the termination decision.
When training supervisors, employers should caution them that these types of stray remarks and expressions of frustration can serve as damaging evidence of workplace discrimination.