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Hulteen Not Much of a Ledbetter Indicator

What was always a long shot did not pan out as the Supreme Court just issued its decision in AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen (S.Ct. 5/18/09) [pdf] without giving any guidance on how it would view the Lily Ledbetter Act. At issue in Hulteen was the present effect of a seniority system which treated pregnancy adversely that was used only before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted, although it had ongoing consequences.  

The Supreme Court held, in a 7-2 decision written by retiring Justice David Souter, that the employer’s actions concerning the seniority system was not discriminatory.  The basic reason is that when the decision was made, seniority systems had their own treatment under Title VII, which recognizes their importance in maintaining stability. That was the same reason the Lily Ledbetter Act was not relevant, even though the Supreme Court had allowed supplemental briefing on its potential impact. Quoting from the statute, the Court answered plaintiff’s argument that it revived her cause of action:

For the reasons already discussed, AT&T’s pre-PDA decision not to award Hulteen service credit for pregnancy leave was not discriminatory, with the consequence that Hulteen has not been “affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice.” §3(A), 123 Stat. 6.

In a spirited defense that was really more of an attack on the original Gilbert decision that led to the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act than anything, Justice Ginburg’s dissent (joined by Justice Breyer) does not even mention the Ledbetter Act.

Many commentators have speculated that if the case had gone the other way, it could have had broad ramifications.  However, given its narrow holding, it seems unlikely to be very important beyond its impact on the parties.

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