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Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls

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Significance: Based on an interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1983, the Supreme Court struck down a private company's fetal-protection policy that barred all women with childbearing capacity from jobs involving significant lead exposure.


The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1983, an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, required that pregnant employees must be “treated the same” as other employees unless there was a bona fide occupational qualification for different treatment. By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court held that there was no bona fide occupational qualification justification for Johnson Controls’ policy of exclusion. Justice Harry A. Blackmun's majority opinion emphasized that the policy did not seek to protect the future children of all employees equally because it did not apply to male employees despite evidence of the debilitating effect of lead exposure on the male reproductive system. In addition, he wrote that the 1983 act permitted a safety exception only in instances in which the employee's sex or pregnancy actually interfered with the worker's ability to perform the job and that decisions about the welfare of future children must be left to parents rather than the employer. Rejecting the argument about the need of the company to protect itself from tort liability, Blackmun noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration required safety standards designed to minimize the risk to an unborn child and that it would be difficult for a court to find liability without negligence.