herrmannseanBy Sean F. Herrmann

In EEOC v. Dimensions Healthcare Sys., No. 15-2342 (D. Md. Sept. 2, 2016), the District of Maryland denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s Title VII and Pregnancy Discrimination Act claims. The court’s decision largely turned on a decision maker’s comment, which the court found could be direct evidence of discrimination.

In that case, the plaintiff sought a promotion into a management-level position, but the company chose a male candidate instead. When the plaintiff asked the decision maker to explain the choice, the decision maker said that the company chose the man because of his “management background.” There was evidence that the plaintiff had reason to be suspicious of this explanation, so she asked again. This time, the decision maker allegedly explained, “Well, like I said, he has a management background. Plus, you were on maternity leave for a while.” Following this meeting, the plaintiff learned that the decision maker was alleged to have previously demoted female employees who had been out on maternity leave.

In holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the comment was merely “offhanded” or, rather, direct evidence of discrimination, the court analyzed various pieces of evidence. First, it noted that the comment came directly from the decision maker. It then pointed out that she made it close in time to the decision itself. The Court also took into account other circumstantial evidence regarding the decision maker’s alleged pattern or practice of demoting those who took maternity leave. Though it denied summary judgment on a direct evidence basis, the court also put the circumstantial evidence through the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework and denied summary judgment on that basis as well.

This case offers some clarity on how courts, and litigants, should approach comments that could amount to direct evidence of discrimination. Context is critical, and where there’s a reasonable difference of opinion on a comment’s meaning, juries should be allowed to decide if it is direct evidence.