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Can unpleasant, ambiguous remarks support a discrimination claim?

Discriminatory comments that are racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and the like are strong evidence of discrimination. Biased comments by a decision maker bear squarely on the contested employment decision.  But what if the comments are subject to interpretation?  Typically, ambiguous remarks are insufficient, standing alone, to prove an employer’s discriminatory intent.  The law requires a high degree of assurance that a disputed statement was attributable to discrimination.  A statement that can plausibly be interpreted two different ways – one discriminatory and the other benign – does not directly reflect illegal bias.  The First Circuit Court of Appeals has held that generalized “stray remarks’” are not probative absent some kind of contextual relevance.

A court may decline to attribute any significance to allegedly discriminatory comments when the plaintiff cannot specify who made these comments, when they were made, or to whom they were directed.  The lack of a direct connection between the words and the employment action may weaken their probative value.


Pamela A. Smith
Law Office of Pamela A. Smith
233 Needham Street, Suite 540
Newton, MA 02464


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