Splitting the Baby: SCOTUS Ruling in Pregnancy Discrimination Suit Calls For Review of Pregnancy Accommodations

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., holding that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) requires courts to consider the extent to which an employer’s policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats non-pregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to perform their job duties.

Peggy Young was a part-time driver for UPS, responsible for picking up and delivering packages that had arrived by air carrier the previous night.  In 2006, after suffering several miscarriages, she became pregnant.  Her doctor told her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and no more than 10 pounds thereafter.  However, UPS required all drivers to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds (and up to 150 pounds with assistance).  When she disclosed her work restriction to her management, UPS put her out on a leave of absence, telling her she could not perform any aspect of her job while under a lifting restriction.  Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

Young subsequently sued, alleging UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her lifting restriction while it had accommodated other drivers who were unable to work for other reasons.  Specifically, she alleged that UPS should have provided her with the light-duty work she requested as an accommodation, the same type of accommodation UPS had provided to other disabled UPS employees.  UPS responded that other workers it had accommodated were drivers who had become disabled on the job, lost their U.S. Department of Transportation certificate or had a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The PDA makes clear that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on pregnancy.  It also says that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e(k).

Applying this standard, a federal judge dismissed the case, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that UPS had a “pregnancy-blind policy” that was a “neutral and legitimate business practice” on its face.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded that decision by a 6-3 majority, holding that “there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.”

The majority’s opinion “split the baby”, so to speak, by rejecting  Young’s expansive reading of the PDA that would have called for “most-favoured nation” status for pregnant women by forcing employers to offer pregnant workers the same accommodations they give to any non-pregnant worker.  At the same time, the Court rejected UPS’s position that because its accommodations policy was neutral with respect to pregnancy, it was in compliance with the PDA.

Led by Justice Breyer, the Court settled on a middle ground. Applying the familiar McDonnell Douglas test for proving discrimination, the majority opinion laid out what Young needs to do to continue to press her claim at the Fourth Circuit.  First, she must show she is a member of a protected class (e.g. that she was pregnant), that she requested an accommodation, that UPS refused to grant the accommodation, and—this is the novel part—“that the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work’.”  If Young meets this initial burden, it is then up to UPS to give a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing the accommodation.   Young would then have to show that UPS’s reason is pretextual.

Young v. UPS was not a slam-dunk for either side. Rather, it clarifies the legal standards set forth in the PDA, and gives Young another chance at proving her case in the Fourth Circuit.  The Court’s interpretation of the PDA does not mean that pregnant women always get accommodated or never accommodated, but rather, that employers should not deny pregnant workers accommodations that are being offered to other workers who have a similar inability to work.

In light of this ruling, employers should review their accommodations policies and light-duty programs with respect to pregnant women to ensure that they fall within the new parameters set by the Court.