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Winks v. Board of Education





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fourth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of McLean County, the Hon. Wendell E. Oliver, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiffs, Bette Winks, Jill Keller, Brenda Melcher, and Cheryl Myhra, are female teachers in Normal Community Unit School District No. 5 of McLean County. They filed this action under section 24-6 of the School Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 122, par. 24-6) and the rules of the defendant school district to recover sick leave benefits for time plaintiffs lost from their employment during the later stages of their pregnancies and subsequent to the birth of their children. The circuit court of McLean County entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The appellate court, with one justice dissenting, affirmed, holding that each plaintiff had suffered a "personal illness" within the meaning of that term as used in section 24-6 of the School Code and that the plaintiffs were entitled to sick leave pay up to the number of days which had accumulated under the provisions of that section. (65 Ill. App.3d 956.) We granted the school district leave to appeal.

Section 24-6 of the School Code provides:

"The school boards of all school districts, including special charter districts, shall grant their full-time teachers and other employees sick leave provisions not less in amount than 10 days at full pay in each school year. If any such teacher or employee does not use the full amount of annual leave thus allowed, the unused amount shall accumulate to a minimum available leave of 90 days at full pay, including the leave of the current year. Sick leave shall be interpreted to mean personal illness, quarantine at home, or serious illness or death in the immediate family or household. The school board may require a physician's certificate, or if the treatment is by prayer or spiritual means, that of a spiritual advisor or practitioner of such person's faith, as a basis for pay during leave after an absence of 3 days for personal illness, or as it may deem necessary in other cases.

For purposes of this Section, `immediate family' shall include parents, spouse, brothers, sisters, children, grandparents, grandchildren, parents-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and legal guardians." (Emphasis added.) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 122, par. 24-6.)

This section was enacted in 1961 and has been amended several times since then, the last amendment being in 1972. The defendant school district, in 1968, adopted a sick leave policy implementing this section of the Code. Another sick leave policy was adopted by the school district in 1974 and in 1976. These policies used the language of the statute in defining those persons entitled to sick leave pay.

In 1968 the school district adopted a maternity leave policy, in addition to the sick leave policy, which provided that a pregnant teacher could continue to work as long as her health permitted and she was able to satisfactorily perform her duties. The maternity leave policy also provided that she could return to work following childbirth upon certification by her physician and upon the fulfillment of other requirements. In 1974 the maternity leave policy was revised and provided:

"Once an employee commences Maternity Leave, then no Sick Leave shall be granted until the employee has returned to work. Sick Leave shall be available until Maternity Leave without regard to a pregnancy condition."

The maternity leave policy contained no provision for the payment of monetary benefits.

Plaintiff Winks was granted nonpaid maternity leave under the maternity leave policy of the school district as it existed in December 1973. The other plaintiffs gave birth to children subsequent to the 1974 revision of the maternity policy. Each of the plaintiffs had informed the defendant of her pregnancy, and each had, at some time, requested compensation for sick leave. These requests were denied by the defendant. Each had requested and received nonpaid maternity leave. Each plaintiff, with the exception of Winks, had a normal pregnancy, gave birth to a normal child by a normal delivery, and had a normal postpartum recovery. The record indicates that there were some abnormal occurrences or complications in plaintiff Winks' pregnancy and recovery.

This case deals solely with the interpretation of section 24-6 of the School Code in reference to the sick leave policy of the defendant school district. It does not involve an equal protection issue. That issue was resolved by the Supreme Court in Geduldig v. Aiello (1974), 417 U.S. 484, 41 L.Ed.2d 256, 94 S.Ct. 2485. This case does not involve a question under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1976)). General Electric Co. v. Gilbert (1976), 429 U.S. 125, 50 L.Ed.2d 343, 97 S.Ct. 401, held that the exclusion of normal pregnancies from sick leave benefits would not violate title VII. Also, it should be noted that the amendment to title VII contained in Public Law 95-555, approved October 31, 1978, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, does not apply to plaintiffs' claims, which arose before the effective date of that amendment. As the amendment was adopted subsequent to Gilbert, it nullifies the effects of that decision insofar as Gilbert held that exclusion of normal pregnancies from sick leave benefits did not constitute a title VII violation.

Under section 24-6 of the School Code and the defendant's sick leave policy, an employee of the defendant school district is entitled to compensated sick leave if the absence is occasioned by personal illness, if the employee is quarantined at home, or if there is a serious illness or death in the immediate family or household. This controversy involves the meaning of "personal illness" as that term is used in section 24-6 and in the defendant's sick leave policy. It is plaintiffs' position that this phrase encompasses medical incapacity due to pregnancy and childbirth which prevents the employee from performing the duties of her position.

Plaintiffs call our attention to the opinions that have been rendered by the Illinois Office of Education. In a letter opinion dated May 11, 1976, issued by that office, it is stated: "The school district is required to pay a teacher who has requested sick leave for maternity purposes all her available sick leave during the time in which she is temporarily disabled." Another letter opinion dated May 25, 1977, stated: "Ordinarily, a teacher may use sick leave days for maternity purposes when she is actually physically disabled. In this context, pregnancy is to be treated in the same manner as any other physical disability." Another opinion dated March 1, 1978, is to the same effect. While these opinions would uphold the use of sick ...

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