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Employee has Title VII claim she was fired due to ‘stand by your man’ stereotype, court says

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A former ticket agent for an aviation service company in Maine can go ahead with her discrimination claim that she was fired allegedly because of the company’s stereotyped belief she would stand by her man and quit when it fired her partner, the ramp supervisor (Romero v. Flight Services & Systems, Inc.).

Two months earlier, the ticket agent had resigned alongside the ramp supervisor, although both were rehired the following month, according to court documents. A short time later, the ramp supervisor and the manager allegedly got into a heated discussion over a possible safety issue, and the manager terminated the couple in a joint text, court records said.

In documents submitted to the Maine Civil Rights Commission, the senior safety director explained that because of the ticket agent’s “unpredictable track record” — due to her recently leaving the job after her boyfriend resigned — there was “a likelihood that she would once again abandon her employment,” the lawsuit alleged.

One could infer from the allegations that the company believed she previously quit because her boyfriend quit and that because it was firing him, she “would automatically leave rather than independently assess the situation and do what was best for her own career,” the court explained, refusing to dismiss the claim.

The court held that the couple plausibly alleged a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I have no trouble concluding that a stand-by-your-man sex-based stereotype exists and that [the plaintiff] has plausibly alleged that FSS applied that stereotype to her when it terminated her employment along with [her partner’s],” U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen wrote. 

Employment anti-discrimination laws — including Title VII, as alleged here — require that when making employment decisions, managers evaluate an employee as an individual, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points out in a guidance. Managers act counter to this obligation and unlawfully discriminate against an employee when they make decisions based on gender stereotypes, according to the guidance.

The principle applies even when employers make assumptions that are well-intended or perceived to be in the employee’s best interest, the EEOC has said. For instance, managers would still be acting contrary to the statutes if they made an employment decision based on an assumption that a working mother would not want to relocate to another city, even if that meant a promotion, according to the EEOC.

The agency recently pursued enforcement efforts against Walmart for allegedly acting on a similar stereotype. In January, the retail giant agreed to pay $60,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit alleging it refused to promote a female employee because of stereotyped beliefs about working women with young families.

The court acknowledged the case could be complicated by the history, pointing out that according to FSS, after the ramp supervisor quit, the ticket agent didn’t show up for her next scheduled shift and that when the manager called to find out about her absence, she laughed and said she had already turned in her badge and was quitting.

Because the ticket agent left her job the same time the ramp supervisor quit, there “is some evidence FSS was not stereotyping a female employee, but rather basing an employment decision on [her] previous action,” the court said.

But on a motion to dismiss, the court had to make all inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor, it explained. Under this standard, the couple adequately alleged a discrimination claim based on a female stereotype, the court held.

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