AT&T v. Hulteen Argument Preview

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The ACSBlog has a good review of the pregnancy discrimination case that the Supreme Court will hear later this morning.   As laid out in the summary, the issue is too similar to Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. to have much optimism that the Court will do anything other than say that the plaintiffs have filed outside the statute of limitations.   It’s too bad this case is being heard before the change in administration, as a strong brief from the Obama administration on behalf of the plaintiffs might have helped (the Bush administration, of course, supports AT&T).   Although probably not, given how recent Ledbetter is and how conservative the Court is on these issues of access to the courts.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. – holding that employers become immune from pay discrimination claims 180 days after an initial payroll decision – became a reviled symbol of the Court’s rightward shift under Chief Justice Roberts. In Lily Ledbetter’s remarkable appearances on Capitol Hill, on the campaign trail, and at the Democratic National Convention, the 5-4 decision represented the Court’s ideological rigidity and indifference to the real-world struggles of women and minorities in the workforce.  Yet even as Ledbetter faces the likelihood of being overturned by the incoming Congress, AT&T and the Bush Administration are asking the high court to extend its erosion of civil rights laws even further in a case called AT&T v. Hulteen.

The plaintiffs are Nora Hulteen and three other employees who received reduced retirement benefits because of pregnancy leave they took in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with other major employers, AT&T changed the way it calculated service credit for pregnancy leave in 1979 following the enactment of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but continued to award benefits on a discriminatory basis to those who had taken leave previously. (The parties dispute whether pregnancy-based discrimination was already illegal before the PDA, but that’s not really central to the case.) The company is now set to argue before the Supreme Court on Wednesday that these women can’t sue because any discrimination occurred decades ago when they took pregnancy leave, not when they were awarded lesser retirement benefits.

Sound familiar? As in Ledbetter, the core issue in this case is whether the”discriminatory act”will be defined in a reductive, technical way (focusing on the recording of credits in a database decades ago) or a more pragmatic one (focusing on the award of a smaller pension). AT&T argues that the discrepancy in benefits today is a mere”effect”of past discrimination, just as Lily Ledbetter’s receipt of lesser paychecks than her male coworkers was deemed to be a mere”effect”of past decisions.

You can read the rest of the case review by following the link above.

– David S. Cohen

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