Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Employment Law - Title VII - Eighth Circuit Holds That Benefits Plans Excluding All Contraceptives Do Not Discriminate Based on Sex: In Re Union Pacific Railroad Employment Practices Litigation

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Employment Law - Title VII - Eighth Circuit Holds That Benefits Plans Excluding All Contraceptives Do Not Discriminate Based on Sex: In Re Union Pacific Railroad Employment Practices Litigation

Article excerpt

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1) forbids employers from discriminating in providing employment opportunities and benefits for male and female employees. (2) Since men and women have different health care needs, however, courts have had to grapple with whether identical treatment is necessarily nondiscriminatory. Recently, in In re Union Pacific Railroad Employment Practices Litigation, (3) the Eighth Circuit held that employer-based insurance plans' blanket exclusion of coverage for contraceptives does not discriminate on the basis of sex. (4) By failing to compare the extent to which the insurance plans met men's and women's sex-specific health needs, the court's analysis was flawed both in its interpretation of Title VII doctrine and in its failure to consider how the insurance program actually affected the lives of female employees.

Brandi Standridge and Kenya Phillips were two of approximately 450 female employees of childbearing age at the Union Pacific Railroad Company. (5) The company provided health care benefits to employees covered by collective bargaining agreements through five benefits plans. (6) The plaintiffs filed a class action suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska arguing that the plans discriminated on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (7) (PDA) because they did not cover contraceptives used for the sole purpose of preventing conception. (8) Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the plans violated Title VII because they did not cover any contraceptives--including prescription contraceptives, over-the-counter prophylactics, and surgical options (9)--despite covering a variety of other preventive treatments, (10) including treatments for conditions that only men suffer. (11) The district court granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. (12) The court first decided that the PDA applied. (13) The PDA forbids discrimination not only on the basis of pregnancy alone, but "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions," and against "women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." (14) The district court pointed to UAW v. Johnson Controls, Inc., (15) which held that classifications based on childbearing capacity constitute sex discrimination in violation of the PDA, (16) as extending the PDA's protections to non-pregnant women. (17) The court concluded that the plans discriminated against women because they covered treatments "to prevent diseases or other medical conditions that pose an equal or lesser threat to employees' health than does pregnancy." (18)

The Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded. (19) Judge Gruender (20) first rejected the PDA's applicability, stating contraception was not "related" to pregnancy for PDA purposes because it was used before pregnancy. (21) The court relied on its opinion in Krauel v. Iowa Methodist Medical Center, (22) which held that a medical condition that prevents pregnancy is insufficiently related to pregnancy and childbearing for treatment to be required by the PDA. (23) The court further concluded that contraceptives were gender neutral because they are used by both men and women. (24) It then reasoned that, separate from the PDA, Title VII did not require an employer's benefits plan to cover contraceptives. The court stated that under a general Title VII analysis, plaintiffs must establish that similarly situated male employees received different coverage than did female employees, and it held that the plaintiffs could not meet this burden. (25) In reaching this conclusion, the court of appeals faulted the district court for comparing the plans' coverage of contraceptives to their coverage of preventive treatments for less risky medical conditions. It instead identified the relevant comparison as that between the plans' coverage of male and female contraceptives. (26) After determining that the coverage was equally nonexistent for both sexes, the court concluded that the plan did not violate Title VII. …

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