CLEVELAND BOARD OF EDUCATION v. LAFLEUR

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
72-777
Petitioner 
Cleveland Board of Education
Respondent 
Jo Carol LaFleur
Consolidation 
No. 72-1129, Cohen v. Chesterfield County School Board
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Facts of the Case 

Carol Jo LaFleur was a teacher at Patrick Henry Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. She was forced to discontinue her duties on March 12, 1971 because the Cleveland School Board required every teacher to take maternity leave without pay five months before the expected date of birth. The board also ruled that a teacher could not return from maternity leave until 1) the next school semester began, 2) the teacher obtained a certificate from her physician showing good medical health, and 3) the newborn child was three months old.

Ann Elizabeth Nelson was a French teacher at Central Junior High School, also in Cleveland. She reported her pregnancy to the school’s principal on January 29, 1971, and applied for maternity leave. Both LaFleur and Nelson wanted to continue teaching until the end of the school year, but were forced to leave in March 1971. LaFleur and Nelson filed separate suits in district court challenging the constitutionality of the school boards’ maternity leave rules; the court tried their cases together, and held that the board’s policies were constitutional. A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, reversed, concluding that the mandatory leave policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Susan Cohen was a social studies teacher at Midlothian High School in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Cohen notified the Chesterfield School Board that she was pregnant on November 2, 1970. The board’s rule required pregnant teachers to go on maternity leave at the end of their fifth month, but allowed re-employment the next school year upon submission of a medical certificate from the teacher’s physician. Cohen’s obstetrician believed that she was fit to continue working, but the school board denied Cohen’s request for an extension. Cohen challenged the constitutionality of Chesterfield County’s rule in district court, which held that the regulation violated the equal protection clause. The United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, affirmed, but on rehearing en banc, the court upheld the constitutionality of the regulation.

Question 

1. Did both school boards’ policies terminating teachers’ employment in their fourth or fifth month of pregnancy violate the Fourteenth Amendment?

2. Did the Cleveland School Board’s policy preventing LaFleur and Nelson from returning to work until their children were three months old violate the Fourteenth Amendment?

3. Did the Chesterfield School Board’s policy allowing Cohen to resume employment after maternity leave only upon submission of a certificate of medical health by her physician violate the Fourteenth Amendment?

Conclusion 
Decision: 7 votes for Lafleur, 2 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Due Process

Yes, yes and no. Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Potter Stewart held that the school boards’ regulations requiring pregnant teachers to stop working after the fifth month of their pregnancies violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. Justice Stewart emphasized that the Court extends strong protection to individuals’ freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life. He pointed to both boards’ requirements that pregnant teachers provide advance notice of their condition, arguing that this was in itself sufficient to preserve continuity in classroom instruction.

Justice Stewart then turned to the school boards’ claim that the rules were required because some pregnant teachers became physically incapable of teaching. He reasoned that these rules amounted to an irrebuttable presumption that every teacher in her fourth or fifth month of pregnancy was incapable of teaching. He also rejected the boards’ argument that the rules were necessary for administrative convenience, concluding that administrative efficiency was not a sufficiently important interest to validate what was otherwise a violation of due process.

Justice Stewart also held that the Cleveland School Board’s eligibility restriction based on the age of the newborn child violated the due process clause because the board failed to show a reasonable justification for this regulation. In contrast, the Chesterfield School Board only required that teachers demonstrate good health, guaranteeing them re-employment by the beginning of the next school year. This was a reasonable and narrow method of protecting the school’s interest in teacher fitness.

Justice Louis Powell concurred in the result. He questioned the majority’s conclusion that some of the maternity leave requirements amounted to an irrebuttable presumption of unfitness. Instead, Justice Powell argued that the board’s classifications violated the female teachers’ right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment because they were not rationally related to the school’s legitimate interest in fostering continuity of teaching.

Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger, dissented. He argued that while the school boards’ rules may have been arbitrary in particular cases, this was not enough to show that the rules themselves were unconstitutional. He noted that both parties conceded that the probability of physical impairment increased as a pregnancy advanced, and suggested that the line drawn by the boards was not irrational.

Cite this Page
CLEVELAND BOARD OF EDUCATION v. LAFLEUR. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 22 October 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1973/1973_72_777>.
CLEVELAND BOARD OF EDUCATION v. LAFLEUR, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1973/1973_72_777 (last visited October 22, 2014).
"CLEVELAND BOARD OF EDUCATION v. LAFLEUR," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1973/1973_72_777.