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Justices Uphold Pregnancy Leave : California Law Granting Women Their Jobs Back Is Ruled Valid

January 14, 1987|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In what was hailed as a major victory for women, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a California law that grants pregnant employees the right to a four-month leave to have a child and guarantees that they will get their jobs back.

The justices, on a 6-3 vote, concluded that a federal law prohibiting discrimination against pregnant women does not prevent the state from discriminating in favor of them.

"Congress intended the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to be a floor beneath which pregnancy benefits may not drop--not a ceiling above which they may not rise," Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority. "By taking pregnancy into account, California's pregnancy disability leave statute allows women, as well as men, to have families without losing their jobs."

Feminists Praise Ruling

Feminist leaders generally praised the decision for moving the nation toward equal opportunities for working women. They said that they expect other states--and perhaps Congress--to guarantee women the right to their jobs after pregnancy leave.

The case arose when Lillian Garland, a receptionist in West Los Angeles, took a leave to have a baby in 1982. Three months later, when she wanted to return to work, her employer, California Federal Savings & Loan Assn., said that her job had been filled. She asked the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission to intervene under the terms of a 1978 state law granting women four months of disability leave for pregnancies.

But, before any action was taken, lawyers for Cal Fed won a federal court order invalidating the state law. The federal pregnancy act, also passed in 1978, said that pregnant workers "shall be treated the same (as other employees) for all employment-related purposes." Cal Fed said that it did not guarantee men their jobs back after a disability leave.

'Defies Common Sense'

However, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the California law in 1985, saying that it "defies common sense" to use a federal pregnancy discrimination law to nullify a job guarantee for pregnant women.

Cal Fed, joined by the California Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., appealed to the Supreme Court.

For the justices, the issue was the same as in the many affirmative action cases: Does a federal law forbiding discrimination against a disadvantaged group also forbid special treatment for those people?

With Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia joining the traditional liberal bloc, the high court said no. Marshall stressed that the California law provided only a limited benefit to women: the right to unpaid leave during the time of disability because of pregnancy.

Moreover, he said, the law "does not reflect archaic or stereotypical notions about pregnancy," which would cause the court to frown on the special treatment provisions. Scalia did not endorse Marshall's opinion but joined the judgment in favor of California.

Law Called Clear

In dissent, Justice Byron R. White, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., said that the language of the federal law "could not be clearer: It mandates that pregnant employees 'shall be treated the same' . . . (and it) leaves no room for preferential treatment of pregnant workers."

Women's groups were divided over this case (Cal Fed vs. Guerra, Director of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, 85-494). Some, including the NOW Legal Defense Fund and the Women's Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed California's statute in briefs to the high court. Those groups said that they feared that special provisions benefiting women would lead ultimately to renewed discrimination against women.

Men Could Get Same Right

However, Emily Spitzer, an attorney for the NOW Legal Defense Fund in Washington, said that she is pleased with the ruling. "The court is saying that compliance with both statutes is not physically impossible. Cal Fed could give the same benefits to their male employees," she said. She said that the decision may also spur federal legislation granting parental leave to men and women.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) sponsored a bill last year that would have allowed parents to take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave on the birth or adoption of a child. The legislation was approved by a House committee but went no further. She plans to reintroduce the bill this year, she said.

"I feel we've truly been boosted," Schroeder declared. "This kind of recognition by the Supreme Court that the world has changed will only make Congress look worse if it can't recognize it."

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