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Int'l Union v. Johnson Controls - 499 U.S. 187, 111 S. Ct. 1196 (1991)


The Pregnancy Discrimination Act's amendment to Title VII contains a bona fide occupational qualification standard of its own: 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. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e(k). Women who are either pregnant or potentially pregnant must be treated like others similar in their ability to work. In other words, women as capable of doing their jobs as their male counterparts may not be forced to choose between having a child and having a job.


A primary ingredient in Respondent Johnson Controls’ 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 Johnson Controls’ 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 Johnson Controls, 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 Johnson Controls 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 and that even if the proper evaluative standard was bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) analysis, Johnson Controls 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 its business. Petitioners thereafter appealed from the judgment of the appellate court.


Does Johnson Controls’ fetal-protection policy constitute sex discrimination violative of the Civil Rights Act?




The Court held that Johnson Controls’ fetal-protection policy explicitly discriminated against women on the basis of their sex. The Court ruled that the sex-based discrimination was not permissible. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, discrimination based on a woman's pregnancy was on its face discrimination because of her sex. According to the Court, despite evidence about the debilitating effect of lead exposure on the male reproductive system, employer's policy only addressed female employees. Thus, the policy was not neutral. The absence of a malevolent notice did not convert the facially discriminatory policy into a neutral policy with a discriminatory effect. The Court also posited that the discrimination could not be justified as a bona fide occupational qualification. Discrimination under the safety exception to the bona fide occupational qualification was allowed only in narrow circumstances. The Court concluded that danger to the women did not justify the discrimination.

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