446 U.S. 142 (1980), 79-381, Wengler v. Druggists Mutual Insurance Co.

Docket Nº:No. 79-381
Citation:446 U.S. 142, 100 S.Ct. 1540, 64 L.Ed.2d 107
Party Name:Wengler v. Druggists Mutual Insurance Co.
Case Date:April 22, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 142

446 U.S. 142 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1540, 64 L.Ed.2d 107



Druggists Mutual Insurance Co.

No. 79-381

United States Supreme Court

April 22, 1980

Argued February 25, 1980



Held: The provision of the Missouri workers' compensation laws denying a widower benefits on his wife's work-related death unless he either is mentally or physically incapacitated or proves dependence on his wife's earnings, but granting a widow death benefits without her having to prove dependence on her husband's earnings, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 147-152.

(a) The statute indisputably mandates gender-based discrimination and discriminates against both men and women. It discriminates against a woman, since, in the case of her death, benefits are payable to her spouse only if he meets the incapacity or dependency tests, whereas death benefits are automatically paid to a widow because dependency on her husband is conclusively presumed, a female wage earner thus being provided with less protection for her spouse on her work-related death than is provided for the widow of a deceased male wage earner. And the statute discriminates against a man who survives his wife's dying in a work-related accident because to receive benefits he, in contrast to a widow, must prove incapacity or dependency. Pp. 147-149.

(b) To be justified, gender-based discriminations must serve important governmental objectives and the discriminatory means employed must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. Here, the claimed justification for not treating men and women alike -- that women are generally dependent on male wage earners and that it is more efficient to presume dependency in the case of women than to engage in case-by-case determination, whereas individualized inquiries in the few cases in which men might be dependent are not prohibitively costly -- is unsubstantiated, and thus cannot save the gender-based discrimination in question. Pp. 150-152.

583 S.W.2d 162, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 154. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 153.

Page 143

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case challenges, under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a provision of the Missouri workers' compensation laws, Mo.Rev.Stat. § 287.240 (Supp. 1979), which is claimed to involve an invalid gender-based discrimination.


The facts are not in dispute. On February 11, 1977, Ruth Wengler, wife of appellant Paul J. Wengler, died in a work-related accident in the parking lot of her employer, appellee Dicus Prescription Drugs, Inc. Appellant filed a claim for death benefits under Mo.Rev.Stat. § 287.240 (Supp. 1979),1

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under [100 S.Ct. 1542] which a widower is not entitled to death benefits unless he either is mentally or physically incapacitated from wage

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earning or proves actual dependence on his [100 S.Ct. 1543] wife's earnings. In contrast, a widow qualifies for death benefits without having

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to prove actual dependence on her husband's earnings.2 Appellant stipulated that he was neither incapacitated nor dependent on his wife's earnings, but argued that, owing to its disparate treatment of similarly situated widows and widowers, § 287.240 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The claim was administratively denied, but the Circuit Court of Madison County reversed, holding that § 287.240 violated the Equal Protection Clause because the statutory restriction on a widower's recovery of death benefits did not also apply to a surviving wife. Dicus and its insurer, appellee Druggists Mutual Insurance Co., were ordered to pay death benefits to appellant in the appropriate amount. App to Juris.Statement A22-A25.

The Missouri Supreme Court, distinguishing certain cases in this Court, reversed the Circuit Court's decision. The equal protection challenge to § 287.240 failed because

the substantive difference in the economic standing of working men and women justifies the advantage that [§ 287.240] administratively gives to a widow.

583 S.W.2d 162, 168 (1979).

Page 147

Because the decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri arguably conflicted with our precedents, we noted probable jurisdiction. 444 U.S. 924 (1979). We now reverse.3


The Missouri law indisputably mandates gender-based discrimination. Although the Missouri Supreme Court was of the view that the law favored, rather than disfavored, women, it is apparent that the statute discriminates against both men and women. The provision discriminates against a woman covered by the Missouri workers' compensation system, since, in the case of her death, benefits are payable to her spouse only if he is mentally or physically incapacitated or was to some extent dependent upon her. Under these tests, Mrs. Wengler's spouse was entitled to no benefits. If Mr Wengler had died, however, Mrs. Wengler would have been conclusively presumed to be dependent, and would have been paid the statutory amount for life or until she remarried, even though she may not, in fact, have been dependent on Mr. Wengler. The benefits, therefore, that the working woman can expect to be paid to her spouse in the case of her work-related [100 S.Ct. 1544] death are less than those payable to the spouse of the deceased male wage earner.

It is this kind of discrimination against working women that our cases have identified and, in the circumstances, found unjustified. At issue in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975), was a provision in the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 402(g), that granted survivors' benefits based on

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the earnings of a deceased husband and father covered by the Act both to his widow and to the couple's minor children in her care, but that granted benefits based on the earnings of a covered deceased wife and mother only to the minor children, and not to the widower. In concluding that the provision violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment, we noted that,

[o]bviously, the notion that men are more likely than women to be the primary supporters of their spouses and children is not entirely without empirical support.

Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, supra at 645, citing Kahn v. Shevin, 416 U.S. 351, 354, n. 7 (1974).4 But such a generalization could not itself justify the gender-based distinction found in the Act, for § 402(g) "clearly operate[d] . . . to deprive women of protection for their families which men receive as a result of their employment." 420 U.S. at 645. The offensive assumption was

that male workers' earnings are vital to the support of their families, while the earnings of female wage earners do not significantly contribute to their families' support.

Id. at 643 (footnote omitted).

Similarly, in Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. 199 (1977), we dealt with a Social Security Act provision providing survivors' benefits to a widow regardless of dependency, but providing the same benefits to a widower only if he had been receiving at least half of his support from his deceased wife. 42 U.S.C. § 402(f)(1)(D). MR JUSTICE BRENNAN's plurality

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opinion pointed out that, under the challenged section, "female insureds received less protection for their spouses solely because of their sex" and that, as in Wiesenfeld, the provision disadvantaged women as compared to similarly situated men by providing the female wage earner with less protection for her family than it provided the family of the male wage earner, even though the family needs might be identical. Califano v. Goldfarb, supra at 208. The plurality opinion, in the circumstances there, found the discrimination violative of the Fifth Amendment's equal protection guarantee.

Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973), involved a similar discrimination. There, a serviceman could claim his wife as a dependent without regard to whether she was, in fact, dependent upon him, and so obtain increased quarters allowances and medical and dental benefits. A servicewoman, on the other hand, could not claim her husband as a dependent for these purposes unless he was, in fact, dependent upon her for over one-half of his support. This discrimination, devaluing the service of the woman as compared with that of the man, was invalidated.

The Missouri law, as the Missouri courts recognized, also discriminates against men who survive their employed wives' dying in work-related accidents. To receive benefits, the surviving male spouse must prove his incapacity or dependency. The widow of a deceased wage earner, in contrast, is presumed dependent, and is guaranteed a [100 S.Ct. 1545] weekly benefit for life or until remarriage. It was this discrimination against the male survivor, as compared with a similarly situated female, that MR. JUSTICE STEVENS identified in Califano v. Goldfarb, supra, as resulting in a denial of equal protection.5 430 U.S. at 217-224 (opinion of STEVENS, J.).

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However the discrimination is described in this case, our precedents require that gender-based discriminations must serve important governmental objectives, and that the discriminatory means employed must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. Califano v. Westcott, 443 U.S. 76, 85 (1979); Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268, 279 (1979); Califano v. Webster, 430 U.S. 313, 316-317 (1977); Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 197...

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