By Christopher Twarowski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Noreen Hulteen gave birth to a daughter, Rachael, in 1968, when she was 34. While on maternity leave, she required surgery and wound up missing 240 days of work. Hulteen, 74, contends that her employer, Pacific Bell -- now AT&T -- did not properly weigh her pregnancy leave into her retirement and other benefits. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the issue in a case that could affect thousands of women who are near or at retirement age.
The case centers on whether women who took pregnancy leave before 1979, when the Pregnancy Discrimination Act went into effect, should be entitled to the benefits the law provides. AT&T has argued that it is not required to credit retroactively the time women spent on maternity leave before the legislation's enactment.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and allows those on maternity leave the same coverage as other medical leave. Before the law, AT&T classified maternity leave as personal leave, allowing for only 30 days of coverage. Those on disability leave had unlimited coverage. AT&T changed its policy when the act went into effect, effectively treating pregnancy leave the same as temporary disability leave.
Hulteen and three other women sued AT&T in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit for violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, arguing that the company did not properly calculate their pension and retirement benefits under the law. The court ruled in August that pregnancy leave taken before the discrimination act must be treated the same as disability leave. Hulteen and the other women took pregnancy leaves between 1968 and 1976.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the matter at the urging of the Bush administration after AT&T appealed the case.
"We are gratified that the court has agreed to hear our appeal," said AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp.
Judith E. Kurtz, a San Francisco-based attorney for Hulteen and the others, characterized the case as "the second generation of pregnancy discrimination." She said, "Women who were discriminated against back in the '70s are being discriminated against again."
Kurtz successfully represented other women in a similar suit in 1991, Pallas v. Pacific Bell. The 9th Circuit's decision against AT&T in Hulteen v. AT&T relied heavily upon the Pallas case. The ruling awarded tens of millions of dollars to its plaintiffs, Kurtz said.
In 2000, the 7th Circuit Court ruled in a similar case, Ameritech Benefit Plan Committee v. Communication Workers of America, that workers were not entitled to retroactive seniority credit for pregnancy leave that occurred before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
"We're hopeful," Kurtz said. "We were litigating the issue 25 years ago. We thought that we were right then, and we think that we're right now."
The U.S. Supreme Court case is AT&T v. Hulteen, 07-543.