High Court Rejects Pregnancy Leave Lawsuit; Will Hear Case Involving Sarbanes-Oxley Act

May 18, 2009
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against four AT&T workers who argued that their pensions were illegally reduced because of pregnancy leave. The employees took pregnancy leave before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was law and a majority of the high court today said the act could not be applied retroactively. Writing for the majority in AT&T v. Hulteen, Justice David Souter said there was no intent by Congress to make the PDA retroactive. "There is no such clear intent here," Souter wrote, "indeed, no indication at all that Congress had retroactive application in mind; the evidence points the other way. Congress provided for the PDA to take effect on the date of enactment, except in its application to certain benefit programs, as to which effectiveness was held back 180 days."

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer filed a dissent, saying in part, that the PDA amended the Civil Rights Act "to require that women affected by pregnancy ‘be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons no so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.' The PDA does not require redress for past discrimination. It does not oblige employers to make women who for the compensation denied them when, prior to the Act, they were placed on pregnancy leave, often while still ready, willing and able to work, and with no secure right to return to their jobs after childbirth. But the PDA does protect women, from and after April 1979, when the Act became fully effective, against repetition or continuation of pregnancy-based disadvantageous treatment."

The high court also rejected a former Sept. 11 detainee's lawsuit against Bush administration officials for alleged discriminatory treatment. Javaid Iqbal's lawsuit argued that former FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft were responsible for a policy of subjecting detainees to harsh conditions of confinement on account of race, religion or national origin. The court ruled 5-4 in Ashcroft v. Iqbal that Iqbal's claim that he was deprived of constitutional rights was "insufficient." Iqbal's lawsuit claimed, in part, that "the [FBI], under the direction of Defendant Mueller, arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men ... as part of its investigation of the events of September 11," and that the "policy of holding post-September-11 th detainees in highly restrictive conditions of confinement until they were ‘cleared' by the FBI was approved by Defendants Ashcroft and Mueller in discussions in the weeks after September 11, 2001."

The justices also granted certiorari in several cases today, including one involving the constitutionality of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which created a federal agency to regulate firms that audit publicly traded companies. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was spurred by the accounting scandals at Enron Corp. The question in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB centers on whether the federal law subverts the separation of powers. A group of businesses argues that the law intended to oversee the accounting industry violates the constitutional separation of powers doctrine because the federal agency's members aren't appointed by the president and Congress cannot control its budget. More information on today's Supreme Court actions is available here.