414 U.S. 632 (1974), 72-777, Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur

Docket Nº:No. 72-777
Citation:414 U.S. 632, 94 S.Ct. 791, 39 L.Ed.2d 52
Party Name:Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur
Case Date:January 21, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 632

414 U.S. 632 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 791, 39 L.Ed.2d 52

Cleveland Board of Education



No. 72-777

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 21, 1974

Argued October 15, 1973




Pregnant public school teachers brought these actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the constitutionality of mandatory maternity leave rules of the Cleveland, Ohio (No. 72-777), and Chesterfield County, Virginia (No. 72-1129), School Boards. The Cleveland rule requires a pregnant school teacher to take unpaid maternity leave five months before the expected childbirth, with leave application to be made at least two weeks before her departure. Eligibility to return to work is not accorded until the next regular semester after her child is three months old. The Chesterfield County rule requires the teacher to leave work at least four months, and to give notice at least six months, before the anticipated childbirth. Reemployment is guaranteed no later than the first day of the school year after the date she is declared reeligible. Both schemes require a physician's certificate of physical fitness prior to the teacher's return. Each Court of Appeals reversed the court below, one holding the Chesterfield County maternity leave rule constitutional, the other holding the Cleveland rule unconstitutional.


1. The mandatory termination provisions of both maternity rules violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 639-648.

(a) The arbitrary cutoff dates (which obviously come at different times of the school year for different teachers) have no valid relationship to the State's interest in preserving continuity of instruction, as long as the teacher is required to give substantial advance notice that she is pregnant. Pp. 639-643.

(b) The challenged provisions are violative of due process, since they create a conclusive presumption that every teacher who is four or five months pregnant is physically incapable of

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continuing her duties, whereas any such teacher's ability to continue past a fixed pregnancy period is an individual matter, and the school boards' administrative convenience alone cannot suffice to validate the arbitrary rules. Pp. 643-648.

2. The Cleveland three-month return provision also violates due process, being both arbitrary and irrational. It creates an irrebuttable presumption that the mother (whose good health must be medically certified) is not fit to resume work, and it is not germane to maintaining continuity of instruction, as the precise point a child will reach the relevant age will occur at a different time throughout the school year for each teacher. Pp. 648-650.

3. The Chesterfield County return rule, which is free of any unnecessary presumption, comports with due process requirements. P. 650.

No. 72-777, 465 F.2d 1184, affirmed; No. 72-1129, 474 F.2d 395, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., concurred in the result. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 651. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 657.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondents in No. 72-777 and the Petitioner in No. 72-1129 are female public school teachers. During the 1970-1971 school year, each informed her local school board that she was pregnant; each was compelled by a mandatory maternity leave rule to quit her job without pay several months before the [94 S.Ct. 794] expected birth of her child. These cases call upon us to decide the constitutionality of the school boards' rules.


Jo Carol LaFleur and Ann Elizabeth Nelson, the respondents in No. 72-777, are junior high school teachers employed by the Board of Education of Cleveland, Ohio. Pursuant to a rule first adopted in 1952, the school board requires every pregnant school teacher to take maternity leave without pay, beginning five months before the expected birth of her child. Application for such leave must be made no later than two weeks prior to the date of departure. A teacher on maternity leave is not allowed

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to return to work until the beginning of the next regular school semester which follows the date when her child attains the age of three months. A doctor's certificate attesting to the health of the teacher is a prerequisite to return; an additional physical examination may be required. The teacher on maternity leave is not promised reemployment after the birth of the child; she is merely given priority in reassignment to a position for which she is qualified. Failure to comply with the mandatory maternity leave provisions is ground for dismissal.1

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Neither Mrs. LaFleur nor Mrs. Nelson wished to take an unpaid maternity leave; each wanted to continue teaching until the end of the school year.2 Because of the mandatory maternity leave rule, however, each was required to leave her job in March 1971.3 The two women then filed separate suits in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the constitutionality of the maternity leave rule. The District Court tried the cases together, and rejected the plaintiffs' arguments. 326 F.Supp. 1208. A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding the Cleveland rule in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.4 465 F.2d 1184. The petitioner in No. 72-1129, Susan Cohen, was employed by the School Board of Chesterfield County, Virginia. That school board's maternity leave regulation requires that a pregnant teacher leave work at least four months prior to the expected birth of her child. Notice

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in writing must be given to the school board at least six months prior to the expected birth date. A teacher on maternity leave is declared reeligible for employment when she submits written notice from a physician that she is physically fit for reemployment, and when she can give assurance that care of the child will cause only minimal interference with her job responsibilities. The teacher is guaranteed reemployment no later than the first day of the school year following the date upon which she is declared reeligible.5

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Mrs. Cohen informed the Chesterfield County School Board in November, 1970, that she was pregnant and expected the birth of her child about April 8, 1971.6 She initially requested that she be permitted to continue teaching until April 1, 1971.7 The school board rejected the request, as it did Mrs. Cohen's subsequent suggestion that she be allowed to teach until January 21, 1971, the end of the first school semester. Instead, she was required to leave her teaching job on December 18, 1970. She subsequently filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The District Court held that the school board regulation violates the Equal Protection Clause, and granted appropriate relief. 326 F.Supp. 1159. A divided panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed, but, on rehearing en banc, the Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the challenged regulation in a 4-3 decision. 474 F.2d 395.

We granted certiorari in both cases, 411 U.S. 947, in order to resolve the conflict between the Courts of Appeals regarding the constitutionality of such mandatory maternity leave rules for public school teachers.8

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This Court has long recognized that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause

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of the Fourteenth Amendment. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113; Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12; Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479; Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510; Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390. See also Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158; Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535. As we noted in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 453, there is a right "to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child."

By acting to penalize the pregnant teacher for deciding to bear a child, overly restrictive maternity leave regulations can constitute a heavy burden on the exercise of these protected freedoms. Because public school maternity leave rules directly affect "one of the basic civil rights of man," Skinner v. Oklahoma, supra, at 541, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that such rules must not needlessly, arbitrarily, or capriciously impinge upon this vital area of a teacher's constitutional liberty. The question before us in these cases is whether the interests advanced in support of the rules of the Cleveland and Chesterfield County School Boards can justify the particular procedures they have adopted.

The school boards in these cases have offered two essentially overlapping explanations for their mandatory maternity leave rules. First, they contend that the firm cutoff dates are necessary to maintain continuity of classroom instruction, [94 S.Ct. 797] since advance knowledge of when

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a pregnant teacher must leave facilitates the finding and hiring of a qualified substitute. Secondly, the school boards seek to justify their maternity rules by arguing that at least some teachers become physically incapable of adequately performing certain of their duties during the latter part of pregnancy. By keeping the pregnant teacher out of the classroom during these final months, the maternity leave rules are said to protect the health of the teacher and her unborn child, while at the same time assuring that students have a physically capable instructor in the classroom at all times.9


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