General Electric Company v. Gilbert Gilbert v. General Electric Company 19 20, 1976

Decision Date07 December 1976
Docket NumberNos. 74-1589 and 74-1590,s. 74-1589 and 74-1590
PartiesGENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, Petitioner, v. Martha V. GILBERT et al. Martha V. GILBERT et al., Petitioners, v. GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY. Argued Jan. 19-20, 1976. Re
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Rehearing Denied Jan. 25, 1977. See 429 U.S. 1079, 97 S.Ct. 825.


This class action was brought by respondents challenging as violative of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the disability plan of petitioner. Under the plan petitioner provides nonoccupational sickness and accident benefits to all its employees, but disabilities arising from pregnancy are excluded. The District Court following trial held that the exclusion constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the intervening decision in Geduldig v. Aiello, 417 U.S. 484, 94 S.Ct. 2485, 41 L.Ed.2d 256, wherein this Court held that disparity in treatment between pregnancy-related and other disabilities was not sex discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, was not applicable in a Title VII context. Under § 703(a)(1) of that Title it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation because of that individual's sex. Held: Petitioners' disability benefits plan does not violate Title VII because of its failure to cover pregnancy-related disabilities. Pp. 133-146.

(a) The plan, which is strikingly similar to the one in Geduldig, "does not exclude anyone from benefit eligibility because of gender but merely removes one physical condition pregnancy from the list of compensable disabilities. . . . Absent a showing that distinctions involving pregnancy are mere pretexts designed to effect an invidious discrimination against the members of one sex or the other, lawmakers are constitutionally free to include or exclude pregnancy from the coverage of legislation such as this on any reasonable basis, just as with respect to any other physical condition." 417 U.S., at 496-497, n. 20, 94 S.Ct. at 2491-2492. Since it is a finding of sex-based discrimination that in a case like this must trigger the finding of an unlawful employment practice under § 703(a)(1), Geduldig is precisely in point in its holding that an exclusion of pregnancy from a disability benefits plan like petitioner's providing general coverage is not a gender-based discrimination at all. Pp. 133-136.

(b) There was no more showing here than there was in Geduldig that the exclusion of pregnancy disability benefits from petitioner's plan was a pretext for discriminating against women, since pregnancy, though confined to women, is in other ways significantly different from the typical covered disease or disability. P. 136.

(c) Gender-based discrimination does not result simply because an employer's disability benefits plan is less than all inclusive. Petitioner's plan is no more than an insurance package covering some risks but excluding others and there has been no showing that the selection of included risks creates a gender-based discriminatory effect. Pp. 136-140.

(d) A 1972 guideline of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) relied upon by respondents, not only conflicts with earlier EEOC pronouncements but is at odds with the consistent interpretation of the Wage and Hour Administrator with respect to § 703(h) of Title VII, as amended by the Equal Pay Act, and the legislative history of Title VII, both of which support the "plain meaning" of the language used by Congress when it enacted § 703(a) (1). Pp. 140-145.

4 Cir., 519 F.2d 661, reversed.

Theophil C. Kammholz, Washington, D. C., for General Elec. Co.

Ruth Weyand, Washington, D. C., for Gilbert and others.

J. Stanley Pottinger, Washington, D. C., for the United States, as amicus curiae.

- Mr. Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, General Electric Co.,1 provides for all of its employees a disability plan which pays weekly nonoccupational sickness and accident benefits. Excluded from the plan's coverage, however, are disabilities arising from pregnancy. Respondents, on behalf of a class of women employees, brought this action seeking, inter alia,2 a declara- tion that this exclusion constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, following a trial on the merits, held that the exclusion of such pregnancy-related disability benefits from General Electric's employee disability plan violated Title VII, 375 F.Supp. 367. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 4 Cir., 519 F.2d 661, and we granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 822, 96 S.Ct. 36, 46 L.Ed.2d 39. We now reverse.


As part of its total compensation package, General Electric provides nonoccupational sickness and accident benefits to all employees under its Weekly Sickness and Accident Insurance Plan (Plan) in an amount equal to 60% of an employee's normal straight-time weekly earnings. These payments are paid to employees who become totally disabled as a result of a nonoccupational sickness or accident. Benefit payments normally start with the eighth day of an employee's total disability (although if an employee is earlier confined to a hospital as a bed patient, benefit payments will start immediately), and continue up to a maximum of 26 weeks for any one continuous period of disability or successive periods of disability due to the same or related causes.3

The individual named respondents are present or former hourly paid production employees at General Electric's plant in Salem, Va. Each of these employees was pregnant during 1971 or 1972, while employed by General Electric, and each presented a claim to the company for disability benefits under the Plan to cover the period while absent from work as a result of the pregnancy. These claims were routinely denied on the ground that the Plan did not provide disability-benefit payments for any absence due to pregnancy.4 Each of the respondents thereafter filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that the refusal of General Electric to pay disability benefits under the Plan for time lost due to pregnancy and childbirth discriminated against her because of sex. Upon waiting the requisite number of days, the instant action was commenced in the District Court.5 The complaint asserted a violation of Title VII. Damages were sought as well as an injunction directing General Electric to include pregnancy disabilities within the Plan on the same terms and conditions as other nonoccupational disabilities.

Following trial, the District Court made findings of fact and conclusions of law, and entered an order in which it determined that General Electric, by excluding pregnancy disabilities from the coverage of the Plan, had engaged in sex discrimination in violation of § 703(a)(1) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The District Court found that normal pregnancy, while not necessarily either a "disease" or an "accident," was disabling for a period of six to eight weeks; 6 that approximately "(t)en per cent of pregnancies are terminated by miscarriage, which is disabling"; 7 and that approximately 10% of pregnancies are complicated by diseases which may lead to additional disability.8 The District Court noted the evidence introduced during the trial, a good deal of it stipulated, concerning the relative cost to General Electric of providing benefits under the Plan to male and female employees,9 all of which indicated that, with pregnancy-related disabilities excluded, the cost of the Plan to General Electric per female employee was at least as high as, if not substantially higher than, the cost per male employee.10 The District Court found that the inclusion of pregnancy-related disabilities within the scope of the Plan would "increase G. E.'s (disability benefits plan) costs by an amount which, though large, is at this time undeterminable." 375 F.Supp., at 378. The District Court declined to find that the present actuarial value of the coverage was equal as between men and women,11 but went on to decide that even had it found economic equivalence, such a finding would not in any case have justified the exclusion of pregnancy-related disabilities from an otherwise comprehensive nonoccupational sickness and accident disability plan. Regardless of whether the cost of including such benefits might make the Plan more costly for women than for men, the District Court determined that "(i)f Title VII intends to sexually equalize employment opportunity, there must be this one exception to the cost differential defense." Id., at 383.

The ultimate conclusion of the District Court was that petitioner had discriminated on the basis of sex in the operation of its disability program in violation of Title VII, id., at 385-386. An order was entered enjoining petitioner from continuing to exclude pregnancy-related disabilities from the coverage of the Plan, and providing for the future award of monetary relief to individual members of the class affected. Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and that court by a divided vote affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

Between the date on which the District Court's judgment was rendered and the time this case was decided by the Court of Appeals, we decided Geduldig v. Aiello 417 U.S. 484, 94 S.Ct. 2485, 41 L.Ed.2d 256 (1974), where we rejected a claim that a very similar disability program established under California law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because that plan's exclusion of pregnancy disabilities represented sex discrimination. The majority of the Court of Appeals felt that Geduldig was not controlling because it arose under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,...

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