Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls 1991

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Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls 1991

Petitioners: International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, and others

Respondent: Johnson Controls, Inc.

Petitioner's Claim: That Johnson Controls' fetal protection policy discriminates against women in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Marsha S. Berzon

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Stanley S. Jaspan

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: March 20, 1991

Decision: Ruled against Johnson Controls, Inc. by finding that their fetal protection policy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the PDA

Significance: The ruling prohibited any discrimination based on a worker's ability to have children. The Court recognized a woman's right to make her own decisions about pregnancy, during potentially harmful work, and the economic needs of her family.

Sex (gender) discrimination, the unfair treatment of a person or group of persons because of their sex, was common in the American workplace until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII (Equal Employment Opportunity), Section 703, parts (a)(2) of the act read,

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to limit, segregate [separate out] or classify his employees in any way which would deprive [take away] or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities . . . because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Although the act clearly prohibited discrimination based on sex in the workplace, nowhere did it address the issue of pregnant workers. Fetal (referring to the unborn child) protection policies barring fertile women (capable of bearing children) from certain jobs out of fear that those jobs could cause harm to a fetus (unborn child) carried by the women became widespread in the 1970s. Given the fact that only women can become pregnant, these policies quickly became controversial. Women's rights advocates believed the policies violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by depriving women workers certain employment opportunities. In response, Congress amended (changed or add to make clearer) Title VII with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in 1978. The part of the PDA which amended Title VII stated that unless pregnant employees differ from others "in their ability or inability to work" they must be "treated the same" as other employees "for all employment-related purposes." In other words, a woman could not be discriminated against merely for her potential to become pregnant or for her actual pregnancy unless it affected her ability to do the job. Nevertheless, fetal protection policies continued in many companies into the 1980s. Not until this case did the U.S. Supreme Court rule in this area.

Johnson Controls, Inc. - Battery Manufacturer

Johnson Controls manufactured batteries. The battery manufacturing process used lead as a main ingredient. Lead exposure (come in contact with) in both men and women may cause health problems such as fertility problems and possibly birth defects in children born to workers.

Originally Johnson Controls only hired males but after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act the business began hiring women. As women began working in its plants, Johnson Controls developed and issued an official policy concerning employment of women in lead-exposure work which read,

Since not all women who can become mothers wish to become mothers, (or will become mothers), it would appear to be illegal discrimination to treat all who are capable of pregnancy as though they will become pregnant.

By adopting this policy, Johnson Controls hoped to avoid discrimination problems since it stopped short of excluding all women capable of becoming pregnant from lead exposure jobs. The company required any woman wishing to work where lead exposure existed to sign a statement stating that she had been advised of the risk of having a child while being exposed to lead. Over the next five years, eight women employees with high lead blood levels became pregnant. Although none of the babies suffered defects, Johnson Controls developed a new fetal protection policy banning all "women . . . capable of bearing children" from lead exposed jobs. "Capable of bearing children" was defined as "all women except those whose inability to bear children is medically documented."

Class-action Lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit is one which is brought by a large number of people as a group. These people all have a common interest. Various labor unions brought a class-action lawsuit in Wisconsin against Johnson Controls, claiming its fetal protection policy was sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as amended by the PDA. Two individuals included in the suit were Mary Craig and Elsie Nason. Mary Craig had chosen to be sterilized rather than lose her job. Elsie Nason, a fifty-year-old divorcee, had suffered a loss of pay when she was transferred out of a job where she was exposed to lead.

A Business Necessity

The local district court decided in favor of Johnson Controls. The court stressed the likelihood that exposure to lead put a fetus, as well as the reproductive abilities of would-be parents, at risk. Neither the union nor employees had previously offered an acceptable alternative way to protect the fetus. The court found the company's policy to be a "business necessity." The suing groups appealed.

The Court of Appeals next also ruled in favor of Johnson Controls. Not only did the Court of Appeals decide Johnson's policy was a business necessity but decided that such policies could exclude women without being called discrimination under "a bona fide occupational qualification" (BFOQ) clause found in Title VII, section 703, part (e)(1) of the Civil Rights Act. No other court of appeals had applied BFOQ in similar cases. Use of the BFOQ caught the U.S. Supreme Court's attention and the Court decided to hear the case.

Outright Sex Discrimination

Justice Harry A. Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court in a close 5-4 decision. After noting that "we are concerned with an employer's gender-based fetal-protection policy" he asked,"May an employer exclude a fertile female employee from certain jobs because of its concern for the health of the fetus the woman might conceive [become pregnant]?"

Ruling against Johnson Controls, the opinion of the Court was that Johnson clearly had discriminated against women. Blackmun wrote,

The bias (prejudiced view) in Johnson Controls policy is obvious. Fertile men, but not fertile women are given a choice as to whether they wish to risk their reproductive health for a particular job. Section 703(a) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . as amended [by PDA] . . . prohibits sex-based classification in terms and conditions of employment. . .

The Court also held that Johnson's policy was outright sex discrimination. The lower courts discussion of business necessity, they asserted, was a mistake and not at all appropriate. Using BFOQ consideration was a better way to approach the issue.

Don't Let the Plane Crash

BFOQ consideration permits an employer to discriminate only when it is necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or as interpreted by the courts, when a severe safety problem would be created. For example, in Western Airlines, Inc. v. Criswell (1985), one type of discrimination was allowed, age discrimination. It was determined that a flight engineer over the age of sixty might not perform all tasks assigned causing a "safety emergency." For the safety of the passengers, planes must not crash. This fact was "indispensable" to the operation of the airline business and age discrimination was allowed. In the case of Johnson Controls, sex or pregnancy did not actually interfere with the employees ability to perform the job.

Blackmun wrote,

We have no difficulty concluding that Johnson Controls cannot establish a BFOQ. Fertile women as far as appears in the record, participate in the manufacture of batteries as efficiently as anyone else.

Strictly a Family Affair

Blackmun further commented that "danger to a woman herself does not justify discrimination." It is her business to decide if she will take the risk. Likewise, the risks a pregnant woman assumes for her fetus are not her employer's concern. Such decisions, Blackmun wrote,

Must be left to the parents . . . rather than the employers. . . Title VII and the PDA simply do not allow a woman's dismissal because of her failure to submit to sterilization [or because she may become pregnant].

Company Liability (Responsibility)

Blackmun commented that although forty states permitted lawsuits to recover money for injuries to a fetus, the cases were always based on negligence (carelessness). If the company complies with basic national safety standards and fully informs the woman of the risk, as Johnson Controls did, then the employer has not been negligent and will not be liable for injury.

Fearful of a Mixed Reaction

Anticipating a mixed reaction from the general public to the Court's finding, Blackmun, giving powerful reasons for the ruling, wrote,

Our holding today . . . is neither remarkable nor unprecedented [a new idea or occurrence]. Concern for a woman's existing or potential offspring historically has been the excuse for denying women equal employment opportunities. . . It is no more appropriate for the courts than it is for individual employers to decide whether a woman's reproductive role is more important to herself and her family than her economic role. Congress has left this choice to the woman as hers to make.

Suggestions for further reading

Blank, Robert H. Fetal Protection in the Workplace: Women's Rights, Business Interests, and the Unborn. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Daniels, Cynthia R. At Women's Expense: State Power and the Politics of Fetal Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Morgan, Lynn M., and Meredith W. Michaels, eds. Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Samuels, Suzanne Uttaro. Fetal Rights, Women's Rights: Gender Equality in the Workplace. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

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Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls 1991

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