Historically, discrimination against women concerning childbirth and pregnancy was legally sanctioned and resulted in fewer advantages for women in the workforce. Most employers discharged a woman as soon as she became noticeably pregnant, and if she returned, she was considered a new, rather than a returning employee. Before 1978, many employers would give female employees a maximum of thirty days of credited pregnancy-related disability leave, while non-pregnant employees would receive unlimited credit for disability leave. In 1978, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), requiring that employers treat pregnant employees the same as employees who were not pregnant.
These laws forced many employers to change their policies to allow unlimited credit for pregnancy-related disability leave. However, PDA women who took pregnancy-related disability leave prior to the Act, were unable to receive full credit for leave lasting longer than thirty days. Consequently, these women not only received smaller pension benefits, but also were ineligible for new early retirement programs.
In AT&T v. Hulteen, the Supreme Court considered whether limiting the pregnancy-related benefits credit where leave was taken before the PDA, was a Title VII violation of the PDA. The Court held that employer AT&T did not violate Title VII when it limited pension benefits based on this criteria. The Court ruled that AT&T’s actions were facially neutral and qualified for the bona fide seniority system exception. To create a Title VII violation, the Court concluded that the PDA would have to apply retroactively.
This Note argues that the reasoning in Hulteen was flawed because AT&T’s pension benefits calculation was intentionally discriminatory. Furthermore, the PDA does not have to be retroactive for AT&T’s pension benefits calculation to be a Title VII violation. Part II examines the congressional intent behind the PDA, the tests for determining a discriminatory action under Title VII, and the background of Hulteen. Part III argues that AT&T’s pension benefits calculation was intentionally discriminatory and a current Title VII violation. The Court should have given the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s position deference. Part IV proposes that, in response to Hulteen, Congress should amend the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to decrease the employee’s burden of proof in fringe benefit discrimination claims. Part V concludes that Hulteen penalizes women that are protected by law for taking pregnancy-related disability leave and the law must be changed to provide relief to these women.
Blegay, Walakewon. “AT&T v. Hulteen: The Ghost of the Supreme Court on Pregnancy Discrimination and Pay Equality for Women’s Pension Benefits in America.” American University Health Law & Policy, Spring 2010, 62-71.