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decided: January 21, 1987.



O'connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Blackmun, J., who took no part in the decision of the case.

Author: O'connor

[ 479 U.S. Page 512]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Missouri Supreme Court concluded that the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, 26 U. S. C. § 3304(a)(12), does not prohibit a State from disqualifying unemployment compensation claimants who leave their jobs because of pregnancy, when the State imposes the same disqualification on all claimants who leave their jobs for a reason not causally connected to their work or their employer. 688 S. W. 2d 344 (1985). We granted certiorari, 475 U.S. 1118 (1986), because the court's decision conflicts with that of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Brown v. Porcher, 660 F.2d 1001 (1981), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1150 (1983), on a question of practical significance in the administration of state unemployment compensation laws.


In August 1980, after having been employed by the J.C. Penney Company for approximately three years, petitioner requested a leave of absence on account of her pregnancy.

[ 479 U.S. Page 513]

     Pursuant to its established policy, the J.C. Penney Company granted petitioner a "leave without guarantee of reinstatement," meaning that petitioner would be rehired only if a position was available when petitioner was ready to return to work. Petitioner's child was born on November 5, 1980. On December 1, 1980, when petitioner notified J.C. Penney that she wished to return to work, she was told that there were no positions open.

Petitioner then filed a claim for unemployment benefits. The claim was denied by the Division of Employment Security (Division) pursuant to Mo. Rev. Stat. § 288.050.1(1) (Supp. 1984), which disqualifies a claimant who "has left his work voluntarily without good cause attributable to his work or to his employer." A deputy for the Division determined that petitioner had "quit because of pregnancy," App. to Pet. for Cert. A53, and therefore had left work "voluntarily and without good cause attributable to [her] work or to [her] employer." Id., at A52. Petitioner appealed the decision to the Division's appeals tribunal, which, after a full evidentiary hearing, entered findings of fact and conclusions of law affirming the deputy's decision. The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission denied petitioner's petition for review.

Petitioner then sought review in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. The court concluded that § 288.050.1(1) was inconsistent with 26 U. S. C. § 3304(a)(12) as construed in Brown v. Porcher, supra, and therefore could not be enforced. Following Brown, the Circuit Court held that § 3304(a)(12) "banned the use of pregnancy or its termination as an excuse for denying benefits to otherwise eligible women," App. to Pet. for Cert. A44, and accordingly reversed the Commission's decision and remanded for entry of an award. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed. Although the Court of Appeals expressed "reservations concerning the soundness of the ruling in Brown," id., at A39, it

[ 479 U.S. Page 514]

     felt constrained to follow the Fourth Circuit's construction of § 3304(a)(12).

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed, with three judges dissenting. The court held that previous state appellate decisions had correctly interpreted Mo. Rev. Stat. § 288.050.1(1) (Supp. 1984) as disqualifying all claimants who, like petitioner, leave work "for reasons that, while perhaps legitimate and necessary from a personal standpoint, were not causally connected to the claimant's work or employer." 688 S. W. 2d, at 346. Rejecting the notion that it was bound by Brown v. Porcher, supra, the court determined that § 288.050.1(1) was consistent with the federal statute. The court held that the plain language of § 3304(a)(12) only prohibits state laws from singling out pregnancy for unfavorable treatment. The Missouri scheme does not conflict with this requirement, the court found, because the state law does not expressly refer to pregnancy; rather, benefits are denied only when claimants leave work for reasons not attributable to the employer or connected with the work. The court noted that the Department of Labor, the agency charged with enforcing the statute, consistently has viewed § 3304(a)(12) as prohibiting discrimination rather than mandating preferential treatment. We now affirm.


The Federal Unemployment Tax Act (Act), 26 U. S. C. § 3301 et seq., enacted originally as Title IX of the Social Security Act in 1935, 49 Stat. 639, envisions a cooperative federal-state program of benefits to unemployed workers. See St. Martin Evangelical Lutheran Church v. South Dakota, 451 U.S. 772, 775 (1981). The Act establishes certain minimum federal standards that a State must satisfy in order for a State to participate in the program. See 26 U. S. C. § 3304(a). The standard at issue in this case, § 3304(a)(12), ...

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