Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls
499 U.S. 187 (1991)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls, 499 U.S. 187 (1991)

International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace &

Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW

No. 89-1215

Argued Oct. 10, 1990

Decided March 20, 1991

499 U.S. 187

Syllabus

A primary ingredient in respondent's battery manufacturing process is lead, occupational exposure to which entails health risks, including the risk of harm to any fetus carried by a female employee. After eight of its employees became pregnant while maintaining blood lead levels exceeding that noted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as critical for a worker planning to have a family, respondent announced a policy barring all women, except those whose infertility was medically documented, from jobs involving actual or potential lead exposure exceeding the OSHA standard. Petitioners, a group including employees affected by respondent's fetal-protection policy, filed a class action in the District Court, claiming that the policy constituted sex discrimination violative of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. The court granted summary judgment for respondent, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The latter court held that the proper standard for evaluating the policy was the business necessity inquiry applied by other Circuits; that respondent was entitled to summary judgment because petitioners had failed to satisfy their burden of persuasion as to each of the elements of the business necessity defense under Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio,490 U. S. 642; and that, even if the proper evaluative standard was bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) analysis, respondent still was entitled to summary judgment because its fetal-protection policy is reasonably necessary to further the industrial safety concern that is part of the essence of respondent's business.

Held: Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), forbids sex-specific fetal-protection policies. Pp. 499 U. S. 197-211.

(a) By excluding women with childbearing capacity from lead-exposed jobs, respondent's policy creates a facial classification based on gender and explicitly discriminates against women on the basis of their sex under § 703(a) of Title VII. Moreover, in using the words "capable of bearing children" as the criterion for exclusion, the policy explicitly classifies on the basis of potential for pregnancy, which classification must be

Page 499 U. S. 188

regarded, under the PDA, in the same light as explicit sex discrimination. The Court of Appeals erred in assuming that the policy was facially neutral because it had only a discriminatory effect on women's employment opportunities, and because its asserted purpose, protecting women's unconceived offspring, was ostensibly benign. The policy is not neutral, because it does not apply to male employees in the same way as it applies to females, despite evidence about the debilitating effect of lead exposure on the male reproductive system. Also, the absence of a malevolent motive does not convert a facially discriminatory policy into a neutral policy with a discriminatory effect. Cf. Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp.,400 U. S. 542. Because respondent's policy involves disparate treatment through explicit facial discrimination, the business necessity defense and its burden-shifting under Wards Cove are inapplicable here. Rather, as indicated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's enforcement policy, respondent's policy may be defended only as a BFOQ, a more stringent standard than business necessity. Pp. 499 U. S. 197-200.

(b) The language of both the BFOQ provision set forth in § 703(e)(1) of Title VII -- which allows an employer to discriminate on the basis of sex "in those certain instances where . . . sex . . . is a [BFOQ] reasonably necessary to the normal operation of [the] particular business" -- and the PDA provision that amended Title VII-which specifies 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" -- as well as these provisions' legislative history and the case law, prohibit an employer from discriminating against a woman because of her capacity to become pregnant unless her reproductive potential prevents her from performing the duties of her job. The so-called safety exception to the BFOQ is limited to instances in which sex or pregnancy actually interferes with the employee's ability to perform, and the employer must direct its concerns in this regard to those aspects of the woman's job-related activities that fall within the "essence" of the particular business. Dothard v. Rawlinson,433 U. S. 321, 433 U. S. 333, 433 U. S. 335; Western Air Lines, Inc. v. Criswell,472 U. S. 400, 472 U. S. 413. The unconceived fetuses of respondent's female employees are neither customers nor third parties whose safety is essential to the business of battery manufacturing. Pp. 499 U. S. 200-206.

(c) Respondent cannot establish a BFOQ. Fertile women, as far as appears in the record, participate in the manufacture of batteries as efficiently as anyone else. Moreover, respondent's professed concerns about the welfare of the next generation do not suffice to establish a BFOQ of female sterility. Title VII, as amended by the PDA, mandates that decisions about the welfare of future children be left to the parents

Page 499 U. S. 189

who conceive, bear, support, and raise them, rather than to the employers who hire those parents or the courts. Pp. 499 U. S. 206-207.

(d) An employer's tort liability for potential fetal injuries and its increased costs due to fertile women in the workplace do not require a different result. If, under general tort principles, Title VII bans sex-specific fetal-protection policies, the employer fully informs the woman of the risk, and the employer has not acted negligently, the basis for holding an employer liable seems remote, at best. Moreover, the incremental cost of employing members of one sex cannot justify a discriminatory refusal to hire members of that gender. See, e.g., Los Angeles Dept. of Water & Power v. Manhart,435 U. S. 702, 435 U. S. 716-718, and n. 32. Pp. 499 U. S. 208-211.

886 F.2d 871 (CA7 1989), reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 499 U. S. 211. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 499 U. S. 223.

Page 499 U. S. 190

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