Negative remarks about a worker being “insecure”, “fragile”, or “immature” are gender neutral comments that do not form the basis to support a valid gender employment discrimination claim under federal law. This issue was addressed in the April 10, 2012 United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Decision of Myrta Morales-Cruz v. University of Puerto Rico School of Law. While this case originally comes from the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, that federal district, like New Hampshire’s and Massachusetts federal districts, is part of the federal First Circuit and therefore the decision in that case from the United States Court of Appeals for First Circuit is legal precedent for both New Hampshire and Massachusetts federal district courts deciding employment discrimination cases.
Morales-Cruz claimed that she experienced gender-based discrimination and retaliation from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law who refused to extend her probationary period as an assistant professor to obtain tenure. The law school had hired Morales-Cruz in 2002 as an adjunct professor. The law school one year later offered her a tenure track position of assistant professor which carried with it a potential for tenure after the successful completion of a 5-year probationary period. During that 5-year interval, Morales-Cruz taught various courses and along with a male professor led the community development section of this University’s Legal Aid Clinic. At some point, Morales-Cruz’s co-teacher began a sexual relationship with one of the clinic’s female students resulting in her pregnancy. In 2008, near the end of Morales-Cruz’s probationary period, she sought a one-year extension before undergoing her tenure review. She did not ultimately get that one-year extension and therefore her employment ceased with the law school evidently because the Dean and a member of the Personnel Committee thought that her failure to report that her co-teacher was involved in a sexual dalliance with a clinic’s female student showed her to have poor judgment and difficulty handling complex and sensitive situations. Further, the Dean referred to her as “insecure”, “immature” and “fragile.” She thereafter filed suit.
The law school moved to dismiss the case based upon the pleadings and the District Court did so. The First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the dismissal finding that there was no plausible conclusion from the facts alleged in the pleadings to state that the law school acted against Morales-Cruz in not extending her employment because of her gender. Morales-Cruz stated that she was terminated because the Dean and others expected her as a woman to report the teacher/student sexual relationship. The Court found it implausible that the school held her to a different standard because she was a woman and found it ridiculous to suggest that the school believed that women, but not men, are expected to be forthcoming about sexual foibles of others. The First Circuit Court further noted that the descriptions of Morales-Cruz as being “fragile”, “immature”, and “unable to handle complex and sensitive issues” are gender neutral.
The Court also affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of Morales-Cruz’s retaliation claim concluding that she could not have a good faith reasonable belief that the underlying challenged actions of the employer violated the law. In other words, the Court was saying that in essence Morales-Cruz knew she was losing her job for failing to report her co-teacher’s misconduct rather than because she was a woman, and therefore her retaliation claim could not withstand scrutiny.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].