Lawyers for about 100,000 women employed throughout the country by the General Electric Co. have asked a federal judge here to approve a new trial on the controversial issue of disability benefits for pregnant workers.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 last December that GE may legally exclude pregnancy benefits from its disability insurance programs.Women's rights activists viewed the decision as a major setback.
Lawyers for the GE women have now asked U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Wapriner to reopen the case, a move that a lawyer for GE likened to taking "another bite at the apple on a different theory." The case is expected to be returned to Judge Robert R. Merhige, who was out of the country when the lawyers filed their request. He was the original judge in the controversial case that began in 1972. He ruled that pregnant workers were entitled to the disability benefits.
Winn Newman, a Washington lawyer representing the women, said in an interview that Merhige will be asked to circumvent the effect of the Supreme Court decision by applying laws in 38 states where GE employs women.
Merhige "has discretion to apply state law in this case," he said. Several possibilities could be explored by the judge, Newman said, including statutes that ban sex discrimination in employment, as well as court and state agency interpretations of state law that have the effect of outlawing discriminatory exclusions similar to the one in the GE case.
Some of the legal precedents, Newman added, were developed after the Supreme Court issued its opinion.
If Merhige agrees to a new trial, he could apply certain state laws and discard others as he sees fit, clearing the way for pregnancy benefits in some states, while blocking them in others, Newman said.
GE has not filed a respone to the request for a new hearing in the case.