On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff can demonstrate at least a genuine dispute as to whether an employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) by accommodating certain categories of injured or disabled employees, but not pregnant women.

Background

In Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court took on the task of interpreting the second clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the first clause of the PDA provides that discrimination “because of sex” includes discrimination “because of … pregnancy,” the second clause provides that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” Plaintiff Peggy Young was a UPS driver who had lifting restrictions while pregnant and requested accommodations for those restrictions from UPS. Young argued that because UPS offered accommodations to three other categories of employees – 1) those with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 2) those injured on the job, and 3) those who had lost their Department of Transportation certificates because of a failed medical exam – UPS was obligated under the PDA to provide her with the same accommodations. UPS refused to accommodate Young because she did not fall into any of these categories. Young ultimately had to take an unpaid leave of absence.

The Parties’ Arguments

Young argued that a PDA violation occurs if an employer accommodates only a subset of workers with disabling conditions but refuses those same accommodations for pregnant women similar in the ability to do work – even if other non-pregnant workers do not receive accommodations. UPS on the other hand argued that the PDA only requires employers to provide accommodations on a pregnancy-neutral basis – that is, employers should be permitted to offer different accommodations to different subsets of employees as long as those accommodations were not decided on the basis of pregnancy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit decided in favor of UPS and concluded that it did not discriminate against Young because it had a facially neutral accommodation policy – UPS provided accommodations to those three categories of employees regardless of whether the employees were pregnant.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court rejected both Young’s interpretation of the PDA and that of UPS. The Court explained that Young’s position would have the practical effect of granting pregnant workers “most-favored nation” status – that is, pregnant workers would be entitled to accommodations if only one or two similarly abled, non-pregnant workers were accommodated, even if most other non-pregnant workers did not receive accommodations. On the other hand, UPS’s position ignored Congress’s intent in adopting the PDA as a means of overturning the Supreme Court’s prior decision in General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976), which held that employers could treat pregnancy different from other illnesses or disabilities as long as it did so on a neutral basis. Notably, the Supreme Court also gave little deference to enforcement guidance regarding pregnancy discrimination that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued in 2014 (which mirrored Young’s position on the PDA), based in part on the fact that the guidelines were inconsistent with the government’s prior position on the issue, and lacked thorough explanation.

The Court concluded that a plaintiff alleging pregnancy discrimination based upon the denial of an accommodation may proceed under the McDonnell Douglas framework generally applied to Title VII discrimination claims. A plaintiff may demonstrate a prima facie case by showing that she belongs to the protected class; she sought an accommodation; the employer did not accommodate her; and the employer accommodated others similarly situated in their ability or inability to work. As usual, the employer will then have the opportunity to justify its treatment of the plaintiff by relying on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying the accommodation. The plaintiff may then show that the employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reason is actually pretext for discrimination.

The Court’s Guidance on Proving or Disproving a PDA Case

The Court provided some guidance regarding how employers and plaintiffs may go about meeting their respective burdens in a PDA case. For example, the Court suggested that the employer should not rely on cost or inconvenience to prove that its reason for not accommodating pregnant workers is non-discriminatory. A plaintiff, on the other hand, may show pretext by pointing to policies of the employer that impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and showing that the employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden. A plaintiff may show such a burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

The Court applied these principals to vacate the judgment of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further consideration.. Although the 4th Circuit had found in favor of UPS, the Supreme Court contrarily held that Young had at least raised a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to some employees whose situations were not reasonably distinguished from Young’s. The Supreme Court also held that the 4th Circuit should have considered Young’s evidence of UPS’s three separate accommodation policies for non-pregnant employees that raised the question of: “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?” Thus, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the 4th Circuit.

Conclusion

Although the Supreme Court declined to find that UPS’s policy was outright discriminatory, and declined to adopt a “most-favored nation” status for pregnant workers, the Court’s holding in this case will still require employers to take a close look at their accommodation policies. The Court’s decision creates the possibility that workplace policies that provide accommodations to some workers but exclude pregnant employees may be in violation of the PDA. If employers have such accommodation policies, they should consider taking steps to reconsider them, particularly if the only justification for excluding pregnant workers from those policies are considerations of cost or convenience. At the very least, employers who have such a policy should be prepared with a legitimate rationale for maintaining it.