Nashville Gas Company v. Satty
Decided on Dec. 6, 1977; 434 US 136

Woman challenges former employer's seniority policy claiming it discriminated against women


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (gender), Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VII, 9th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Title VII include the protections of equal rights in the work place in reference to the seniority and leave policies associated with pregnancy?

A. Background:

Respondent, Nora D. Satty, began work for petitioner Nashville Gas Company on March 24, 1969, as a clerk in its Customer Accounting Department.  She began maternity leave on December 29, 1972, and gave birth to her child on January 23, 1973. 

Seven weeks later she sought re-employment with petitioner, but the position that she had previously held had been eliminated as a result of cutbacks in her department.  Respondent found temporary work with petitioner, making a lower salary than she had earned prior to taking leave. 

While holding this temporary employment, respondent unsuccessfully applied for three permanent positions with petitioner.   Each position was awarded to another employee who had begun working for petitioner before respondent had returned from leave. Respondent did not retain her seniority due to the petitioner's leave and seniority policies, which required pregnant employees to take a formal leave of absence.  During this absence, pregnant employees do not receive sick pay and  they lose all accumulated job seniority.

After the temporary assignment was completed, respondent quit her job due to the lack of work and job security available to her.  The respondent then filed against the petitioner arguing that their policies violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The US District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee held in respondent's favor that Nashville Gas Company's policies did violate Title VII. 

The petitioner filed an appeal challenging the District Court's decision in the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court.  The Court affirmed the District Court's decision, finding the policies to violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the lower courts properly applied Title VII to petitioner's policies respecting pregnancy. 
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Robert W. Weismueller, Jr. argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent. Charles K. Wray argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Marjorie Mazen Smith, Joel Gora, and Judith Lichtman for the American Civil Liberties Union et al; and by Stephen I. Schlossberg, John A. Fillion, J. Albert Woll, and Laurence Gold for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, et al. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of petitioner.

"Two separate policies are at issue in this case.  The first is petitioner's practice of giving sick pay to employees disabled by reason of nonoccupational sickness or injury but not to those disabled by pregnancy.  The second is petitioner's practice of denying accumulated seniority to female employees returning to work following disability caused by childbirth.  We shall discuss them in reverse order...

On its face, petitioner's seniority policy appears to be neutral in its treatment of male and female employees... [Petitioner's] decision not to treat pregnancy as a disease or disability for purposes of seniority retention is not on its face a discriminatory policy. 'Pregnancy is, of course, confined to women, but it is in other ways significantly different from the typical covered disease or disability.'

We have recognized, however, that both intentional discrimination and policies neutral on their face but having a discriminatory effect may run afoul of [Section] 703(a)(2).  It is beyond dispute that petitioner's policy of depriving employees returning from pregnancy leave of their accumulated seniority acts both to deprive them 'of employment opportunities' and to 'adversely affect [their] status as an employee.'

We conclude that petitioner's policy of denying accumulated seniority to female employees returning from pregnancy leave violated [Section] 703(a)(2) of Title VII...

On the basis of the evidence presented to the District Court, petitioner's policy of not awarding sick-leave pay to pregnant employees is legally indistinguishable from the disability-insurance program upheld in Gilbert [Gilbert v. General Electric Co]. As in Gilbert, petitioner compensates employees for limited periods of time during which the employee must miss work because of a non-job-related illness or disability... as in Gilbert, the compensation is not extended to pregnancy-related absences. We emphasized in Gilbert that exclusions of this kind are not per se violations of Title VII: '[A]n exclusion of pregnancy from a disability-benefits plan providing general coverage is not a gender-based discrimination at all.' Only if a plaintiff through the presentation of other evidence can demonstrate that exclusion of pregnancy from the compensated conditions is a mere pretext designed to effect an invidious discrimination against the members of one sex or the other' does Title VII apply.

The District Court sitting as a trier of fact made no such finding in this case... the decision of the Court of Appeals was not based on any such finding [either], but instead embodied generally the same line of reasoning as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit followed in its opinion in Gilbert v. General Electric Co.  Since we rejected that line of reasoning in our opinion in Gilbert, the judgment of the Court of Appeals with respect to petitioner's sick-pay policies must be vacated. That court and the District Court are in a better position than we are to know whether respondent adequately preserved in those courts the right to proceed further in the District Court on the theory which we have just described.

[This Court accordingly], affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded."

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined Powell's concurrence)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined Powell's concurrence)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance in support of respondent. The US Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling that petitioner's policy of denying seniority to females returning from pregnancy leave violated Title VII, vacated its ruling regarding the legality of not providing sick leave for pregnant employees, and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.