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Supreme Court in the 1990s

For most of the decade, the Supreme Court's employment discrimination cases primarily involved women and older workers. Toward the end of the decade, the new area of disability law found its way to the High Court. The major Supreme Court cases during this decade include:

  • International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls (1991), ruling that an employer's restriction against fertile women holding "dangerous jobs" constituted sex discrimination under Title VII. The Court further held that the employer's fetal protection policy could be justified as a bona fide occupational qualification only if an employee's capacity to become pregnant related to her ability to perform the job at issue.
  • Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. (1993), holding that a sexual harassment plaintiff does not have to prove that he or she suffered serious psychological harm in a hostile work environment case.
  • St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks (1993), holding that a plaintiff may receive, but is not entitled to as a matter of law, a finding of discrimination where an employer's asserted nondiscriminatory explanation for its action is proven to be untrue. This case states that the burden of proof always rests with the plaintiff to show that discrimination explains the employer's actions.
  • O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp. (1996), holding that a discharged plaintiff does not have to show that he or she was replaced by someone under age 40 to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADEA. The Court adopted EEOC's amicus position and found that a substantially younger replacement is "a far more reliable indicator" of age bias.
  • Oubre v. Entergy Operations, Inc. (1998), holding that employees cannot be required to tender back money or other benefits received in return for providing a waiver of ADEA rights in order to challenge the legality of the waiver under the provisions of the OWBPA.
  • Farragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998) and Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth (1998), dealing with employers' liability for sexual harassment by their supervisory employees. The Court held, consistent with EEOC, that an employer has no legal defense when harassment results in a tangible employment action. The Court also delineated obligations of employers and employees when no tangible action is taken. As a result of these opinions, EEOC issued policy guidance outlining practical steps to fulfill the employer's duty to prevent and correct harassment and the employee's duty to report or otherwise avoid this harm.
  • Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998), resolving a split-circuit issue and holding that same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII. The Court affirmed the Commission's interpretation on this matter.
  • Bragdon v. Abbott (1998), the first ADA case heard by the Supreme Court, holding that an individual with asymptomatic HIV is an individual with a disability and is therefore protected by the ADA. The Court recognized reproduction as a major life activity under the ADA. Although the case dealt with a Title III public accommodations issue, it has had clear implications in the Title I employment arena.
  • Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp. (1999), holding that an earlier claim for< disability benefits under the Social Security Act does not preclude an ADA claim. This decision agreed with the Commission's amicus position.
  • Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. (1999) and Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (1999), holding that a determination of whether a person has a disability under the ADA must consider whether the person is substantially limited in a major life activity when using a mitigating measure, such as eyeglasses where the alleged disability is sight. While this particular view differed from EEOC's position, the Court emphasized, consistent with the Commission's interpretation, that the determination of whether a person has a disability must always be made on a case-by-case basis.

Next: New Enforcement Strategies to Address Discrimination in the Changing Workplace


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