479 U. S. 511
January 21, 1987
Wimberly quit her job at J. C. Penney because of her pregnancy. After giving birth, the store was unable to reinstate her, and she applied for unemployment compensation. Missouri law provides that unemployment compensation can only be given when an employee leaves for reasons directly and causally related to their work or employer, and so Wimberly’s claim was denied. A federal law mandated that no state could deny unemployment compensation “solely on the basis of pregnancy.” Wimberly sued on the basis of that law.
Unanimously, the Supreme Court rejected her claim (Blackmun did not participate). O’Connor wrote that the federal law did not mandate preferential treatment on the basis of pregnancy, and that if compensation was denied for a neutral reason, like Missouri’s direct relation to work standard, no pregnancy discrimination had occurred. Anyone who quit for medical reasons was denied compensation, so pregnancy in and of itself was not the basis for denial. As usual, the majority opinion buttressed its case with resort to legislative history and agency practice.
Shockingly, Brennan and Marshall did not dissent. They could have made a decent argument too, even though I think O’Connor was correct. What bemuses me most is how dissonant this decision is from Guerra, which had been decided just eight days earlier. Technically, Guerra was only about a federal statute allowing preferential treatment, while Wimberly is about a federal statute potentially mandating it. Still, it is kind of bizarre to see the Court issue two decisions so thematically divergent on the same subject.