Saturday, July 16, 2011
People make comments all the time that include or invoke stereotypes. Sometimes those comments are indicative of their belief systems or values. Sometimes they are feeble – or genuine – attempts at humor or wit. Sometimes people speak rashly and in anger. Many times, people are misunderstood, and their true feelings are belied by a clumsy choice of words. Much of the law of employment discrimination necessarily implicates a searching probe into the often undisclosed – sometimes even to oneself – motivations, beliefs, and intentions that underlie an impel acts alleged to have been discriminatorily premised on someone’s race, gender, or protected class status. Rarely in this day and age does one who suspects that discrimination has befallen him have a “smoking gun” or an admission to that effect. Generally, the undisclosed mindset of a discriminatory decision-maker, far from a simple hidden secret, is actually a complex tapestry of unvoiced beliefs, assumptions, and associations. This tapestry, a victim of discrimination soon realizes, is typically too tightly woven to easily extricate the needed, discrete strand of thought that shows a predisposition to see or judge certain groups differently.
This Article addresses the largely undefined, misunderstood-yet-often-resorted-to concept of “stereotyping” as a basis for, or sufficient evidence of, liability for employment discrimination. Since, the concept’s genesis in Supreme Court jurisprudence in 1989, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, plaintiffs have proffered remarks alleged to be tinged with, or indicating the presence of, impermissible stereotypes as evidence of discrimination based on protected-class status – be that sex, race, color, religion, or national origin – in contravention of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Article examines the language in Hopkins and its precise mandates and guidance for lower courts. It then explains the widespread extrapolation of Hopkins by lower courts and the framework in which the case now operates.
This Article posits that Hopkins furnished guidance that is less than clear as to when so-called “stereotyping” is evidence that warrants evaluation by a trier of fact and when a comment is harmless or too attenuated from an adverse action to permit an allegation of discrimination to survive. The Article also identifies the various smaller, often unarticulated questions bound up in the larger issues of when impermissible stereotyping has occurred and how various courts’ failures to specify these questions and their answers may have led to the confused state of stereotyping jurisprudence. The Article aims to dispel the myth, propagated in part by courts’ misreading of Hopkins, that there is such a discrete cause of action as “stereotyping.” At the same time, it reviews the myriad of cases that have tried to decide, as a matter of law, when a stereotyped comment sufficed to create an issue of fact as to intentional discrimination and breaks down this complex question. Courts appear to have no real uniform standards for evaluating when a statement alleged to have stereotyped a plaintiff is probative and when it can only reasonably be seen as a misspeak, a mistake, or otherwise too “stray” to suffice as evidence that impermissible discrimination took place.