International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls, Inc.
499 U.S. 187 (1991)

Facts:
Johnson Controls was a battery maker. Because lead is a primary ingredient in the manufacturing process, the company had a policy that prohibited women who were pregnant or capable of bearing children from working in jobs that involved exposure to lead.

  • A Title VII class action for sex discrimination was then filed, consisting of all past, present and future production and maintenance employees.

History:

  • The District Court granted summary judgment for Johnson Controls.
  • The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The lower courts assumed that sex-specific fetal-protection policies did not involve facial discrimination. As a result, the courts looked to see if Johnson Controls had established that its policy was justified as a business necessity (a much more lenient standard than the bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) defense).

The BFOQ exception permits sex discrimination in situations where the employer can prove that sex is a ‘bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.’

Issue:
May an employer exclude a fertile female employee from certain jobs because of its concern for the health of the fetus the woman might conceive?

Holding:
No. Case reversed.

Reasoning:
The US Supreme Court held that the aforementioned assumption was incorrect – thus, the business necessity test was inapplicable and the policy could be defended only if it was a BFOQ.

(1) Johnson Control’s policy was facially discriminatory.

  • The policy classifies on the basis of gender and childbearing capacity, rather than fertility alone.
  • Despite evidence in the record about the debilitating effect of lead exposure on the male reproductive system, Johnson Controls is concerned only with the harms that may befall the unborn offspring of its female employees.
  • Furthermore, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act expressly prohibits such discrimination.

(2) The BFOQ defense does not apply.

Johnson Controls unsuccessfully argued that its fetal-protection policy fell within the safety exception to the BFOQ:

  • The court held that the exception is limited to instances in which sex or pregnancy actually interferes with the employee’s ability to perform the job.
  • Here, the unconceived fetuses of Johnson Controls’ female employees were neither customers nor third parties whose safety is essential to the business of battery manufacturing.
  • Additionally, fertile women participate in the manufacture of batteries as efficiently as anyone else.

Addressing tort liability: If the employer fully informs the woman of the risk, and the employer has not acted negligently, the basis for holding an employer liable seems remote at best.

Rule: Title VII forbids sex-specific fetal-protection policies.