In 1978, Congress passed an amendment to Title VII, known as the “Pregnancy Discrimination Act” (“PDA”,) making it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of a pregnancy. The PDA went into effect in 1979 and influenced various corporations to adjust personnel policies. AT&T, for example, changed its policy to calculate service credit for maternity leave in the same way the other kinds of leave were calculated. However, AT&T did not retroactively enforce the change of its personnel policy to the service credit of women who had gone on maternity leave pre-PDA.
In AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen, four female AT&T employees sued the company, alleging their pre-PDA credit should be recalculated according to the post-PDA policy, which would entitle them to greater pension benefits. All four employees took pregnancy leave between 1968 and 1976. On May 18, 2009, the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower court holding in favor of the employees, holding the PDA did not require retroactive application.
The Court held that an employer does not necessarily violate the PDA if it applies a seniority system that was in effect pre-PDA to pregnancy leaves taken prior to 1979, even if that system would violate the PDA if enacted today. The Court explained that seniority systems are afforded special treatment under the law. However, there must be no evidence that the pre-PDA system was enacted with the intent to discriminate. The Court found no evidence of discriminatory intent by AT&T.
This holding is significant because if the Court had ruled for the employees, women who took maternity leave pre-PDA, and are leaving their employment soon ,would be entitled to greater pension benefits. Although this can be considered a victory for employers, they should still consult with legal counsel when giving current effect to pre-PDA policies that differentiate pregnancy leave from other types of leave.