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Wetzel v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

decided: February 11, 1975.

SANDRA WETZEL, AND MARI ROSS, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, EQUAL OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION AS AMICUS CURIAE
v.
LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, A CORPORATION, APPELLANT



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA. (D.C. Civil Action No. 72-169).

Staley, Hastie and Aldisert, Circuit Judges.

Author: Staley

Opinion OF THE COURT

By STALEY, Circuit Judge.

This appeal presents this court with significant questions of first impression. We are asked to determine whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.,*fn1 is violated by a private employer who maintains employment policies that exclude pregnancy benefits from the company's income protection plan and that require female employees to return to work within three months after childbirth or face termination.

Appellant, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company ("Liberty Mutual") is a national insurance underwriting business. Two of its employees, Wetzel and Ross, filed charges of sex discrimination with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC"). Filing of these charges led the company to review and change certain employment policies. The PHRC, however, failed to conciliate the parties, and Wetzel and Ross then filed charges with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). After the statutory period within which charging parties are precluded from commencing litigation, Wetzel and Ross requested and received right-to-sue letters. On February 28, 1972, appellees commenced a class action on behalf of female employees of Liberty Mutual, alleging that appellant's hiring and promotion policies and its pregnancy related policies violated Title VII. The court granted the plaintiffs' motion for class action and ordered that the suit could be maintained as a class action under Rule 23 (b)(2) of the Fed. R. Civ. P. On March 26, 1973, after extensive discovery, Wetzel and Ross moved for partial summary judgment only as to the issue of liability. The district court, on January 9, 1974, finding no issues of material fact, entered an interlocutory order finding that Liberty Mutual's pregnancy-related policies violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Liberty Mutual subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied by the court. On February 20, 1974, the district court, pursuant to Rule 54(b), directed the entry of final judgment as to the pregnancy-related issues,*fn2 thus giving this court jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. It is from this order that Liberty Mutual appeals. The district court, in its order of January 9, 1974, also ruled that Liberty Mutual's hiring and promotion policies violated Title VII. On March 19, 1974, that court made its judgment final, and the company appealed at No. 74-1515. That appeal has been disposed of by another panel of this court, and we need not discuss the issues presented there.*fn3

Although appellant relegated the issue to a mere footnote, we believe the question of whether the district court had jurisdiction is worthy of discussion. One who alleges a violation of Title VII may not sue in federal district court until he has exhausted his administrative remedies.*fn4 The filing of a charge with the EEOC is a statutory prerequisite to commencing an action in federal court. Richardson v. Miller, 446 F.2d 1247, 1248 (C.A. 3 1971).

Appellant contends that the portion of the complaint relating to the pregnancy policies should have been dismissed because those claims were not presented to the EEOC. The basis for this contention is that a box labeled "Benefits" on the Notice of Charge form was not checked. Instead, a box labeled "Terms and Conditions" was checked. We find no merit in appellant's contention. The private litigant plays an important role in the enforcement of Title VII. The EEOC was created by Congress to effectuate the goals of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Act"). In 1972 the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, 42 USC § 2000e-5, provided the Commission with further authority to bring its own actions. However, the Act did not provide the Commission with direct powers of enforcement. Since enforcement lies exclusively in the federal courts, Choate v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 402 F.2d 357, 359 (C.A. 7 1968), the rights of a private party, therefore, must not be barred by procedural technicalities if Title VII is to operate effectively. Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 44, 39 L. Ed. 2d 147, 94 S. Ct. 1011 (1974). Courts have continuously construed Title VII so as not to allow procedural technicalities to bar a claim under the Act. Sanchez v. Standard Brands, Inc., 431 F.2d 455 (C.A. 5 1970). The only jurisdictional prerequisites that must be satisfied to commence a federal action are a timely filing of charges with the EEOC and the receiving and acting on the EEOC notice of the right to sue. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e).

Under the Act the charge of discrimination must be initiated by laymen -- people who are apt to be of varying educational backgrounds and certainly few, if any, having knowledge of the subtleties of pleading and of statutory distinctions. Further, the complainants are probably, at this point, not represented by counsel and should not be held to as strict a standard as appellant has suggested. Since Wetzel and Ross have satisfied the jurisdictional prerequisites and are people without legal expertise, we believe that to deny them access to the federal courts because of a technical error would seriously undermine the policies of the Act and serve only to harm the interests of those whom the Act was designed to protect. "Technicalities are particularly inappropriate in a statutory scheme in which laymen, unassisted by trained lawyers, initiate the process." Love v. Pullman Co., 404 U.S. 522, 527, 30 L. Ed. 2d 679, 92 S. Ct. 616 (1972).

Also persuasive is the Supreme Court's decision in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 798, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973). The Court held that since court actions under Title VII are de novo a complainant is not restricted to "those charges as to which the Commission has made findings of reasonable cause." See also Fekete v. U.S. Steel Corp., 424 F.2d 331 (C.A. 3 1970); Robinson v. Lorillard Corp., 444 F.2d 791 (C.A. 4, 1971).

We, therefore, believe that the district court properly had jurisdiction.

PREGNANCY BENEFITS

Liberty Mutual provides its employees with an income protection plan. The plan is a fringe benefit and provides employees with the payment of income during periods of disability. Funding of the plan is partially through employee contributions. After an employee is out of work eight days because of an illness requiring the care of a doctor, the employee receives a percentage of his salary for the duration of his leave. If the employee has been with the company five years or more, he receives benefits up to age 65. If the employee has been with the company less than five years, he receives the benefits for 103 weeks. Liberty Mutual, however, does not pay any benefits under the income protection plan for disability due to pregnancy or for any disability related to pregnancy. Leaves or temporary absences due to pregnancy-related disabilities are not covered by the plan.

Liberty Mutual maintains that Title VII does not require it to include pregnancy benefits in the income protection plan. In its reply brief and at oral argument, Liberty Mutual primarily relied on Geduldig v. Aiello, 417 U.S. 484, 41 L. Ed. 2d 256, 94 S. Ct. 2485 (1974). Appellant feels that Aiello is dispositive of the case before us. We believe ...


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