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Supreme Court Rules Pensions Need Not Include Maternity Leave Taken Prior To Pregnancy Discrimination Act

June 09, 2017

The Supreme Court on Monday in a 7-2 decision ruled that employers are not required to award women credit toward pension benefits for maternity leave taken before Congress passed the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which states that pregnancy should be treated like other temporary disabilities, the New York Times reports. The majority opinion stated that the 1978 law, which made pregnancy-related discrimination a form of sex discrimination, was not retroactive; therefore, employers were not required to adjust the pension calculations for these women.

The case decided Monday -- AT&T v. Hulteen -- involved four women who had taken maternity leaves before 1978, when it was legal for employers to treat pregnancy leave differently from other types of disability leave. In the majority opinion, Justice David Souter wrote that the women are not entitled to full credit for their pregnancy leaves and will therefore receive smaller pensions, the Times reports. Souter was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented.

Souter's ruling was based in great part on a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, General Electric v. Gilbert, which found that policies treating pregnancy leave worse than other types of disability leaves did not amount to sex discrimination (Liptak, New York Times, 5/19). Congress swiftly overruled Gilbert by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/19). Ginsburg in the dissent wrote that the court had "erred egregiously" in Gilbert, which she said advanced the "strange notion that a benefits classification excluding" pregnant women is not based on sex "because other women are among the favored class ('non-pregnant persons')." Ginsburg said that in passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Congress did not intend to continue reducing women's compensation, including pension benefits, "attributable to their placement on pregnancy leave," adding that the women involved in the case will receive smaller pensions than their colleagues for the rest of their lives (New York Times, 5/19). "[A]ttitudes about pregnancy and childbirth ... have sustained pervasive, often law-sanctioned, restrictions on a woman's place among paid workers and active citizens," Ginsburg said (Biskupic, USA Today, 5/19).


Judith Kurtz, a plaintiffs' attorney in the case, said the ruling will affect thousands of women across the country, nearly all of them in the telecommunications industry. Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said that the decision is "a painful and serious blow to America's working women and the families who rely on their retirement benefits" (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/19). Ness said that the decision "forces women to pay a high price today because their employers discriminated yesterday" (Holland, AP/Google, 5/18). She added, "In the current economic climate, women and their families cannot afford to see their retirement benefits kept lower by discriminatory workplace policies that should have been remedied decades ago" (Mears, CNN, 5/18). Some women's rights advocates said the ruling is comparable to the pay discrimination decision against Lilly Ledbetter in 2007. Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center said the decision was "an all-too-timely reminder of the importance of having on the Supreme Court justices who understand the real-world impact of the law" (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 5/19).

Reprinted with kind permission from nationalpartnership. You can view the entire Daily Women's Health Policy Report, search the archives, or sign up for email delivery here. The Daily Women's Health Policy Report is a free service of the National Partnership for Women & Families, published by The Advisory Board Company.

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