WASHINGTON — A state may refuse to pay unemployment benefits to women who lose their jobs after taking maternity leave, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court unanimously upheld a Missouri law that denies unemployment benefits to everyone, including pregnant women, who voluntarily leaves a job.
Because the pregnant woman was treated like all other workers, the justices reasoned, the state was not guilty of discrimination based on pregnancy.
No 'Preferential Treatment'
"The state cannot single out pregnancy for disadvantageous treatment, but it is not compelled to afford preferential treatment," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.
Last week, in upholding a California law, the court said that a state may require special treatment for pregnant women. In Wednesday's ruling, the justices said only that special treatment is not necessary.
The impact of the latest decision should be limited, because only Minnesota, North Dakota, Vermont and the District of Columbia have laws like Missouri's.
Linda Wimberly had been pregnant for seven months when she took a leave of absence from her job as a cashier at a J. C. Penney Co. store in 1980 to have the baby. When she sought to return four months later, she was told that her job had been filled. She then applied for unemployment compensation but was turned down because Missouri law denies benefits to anyone who has left work voluntarily.
Congress added a clause in 1976 to the federal unemployment insurance law, which helps fund state jobless programs, stating that "no person shall be denied compensation under such state laws solely on the basis of pregnancy or termination of pregnancy."
Wimberly contended that she was denied benefits "solely on the basis of pregnancy," and a state trial court agreed. But a sharply divided Missouri Supreme Court reversed that ruling, concluding that she had not been singled out for unfavorable treatment based on her pregnancy.
In its opinion, the federal high court gave a narrow interpretation to the 1976 amendment. Wimberly may have quit her job "solely on the basis of pregnancy," but the state official who rejected her request for benefits did so simply because she quit voluntarily.
"Because the state's decision (rejecting benefits) could have been made without ever knowing that (Wimberly) had been pregnant, pregnancy was not the 'sole basis' for the decision," O'Connor said.
Without explanation, Justice Harry A. Blackmun took no part in the case (Wimberly vs. Labor and Industrial Relations Commission of Missouri, 85-129).
In other actions on Wednesday, the high court:
--Ruled that a water polluter may be sued outside his home state for the fouling of interstate rivers or lakes. The decision in the case (International Paper Co. vs. Ouellette, 85-1233) clears the way for a group of Vermont home owners along Lake Champlain to sue the International Paper Co., which operates a paper mill on the New York side of the lake.
Voting Rights Case
--Decided that a small Alabama city may have violated the Voting Rights Act by seeking to annex two all-white areas. The city had contended that it did not need Justice Department approval to make such a move because no blacks were affected by it.
But, on a 6-3 vote, the justices disagreed. The annexation was "racially motivated," Justice Byron R. White said, even though no blacks were involved. Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Lewis F. Powell and O'Connor (City of Pleasant Grove vs. U.S., 85-1244).