On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 12-1226, issued a decision on whether UPS’s policy for reasonable accommodation of physical limitations, light-duty, violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

The Facts. The plaintiff, Peggy Young, was a part-time driver for UPS and became pregnant in 2006. She was instructed by her medical provider not to lift more than 20 pounds. Her job required, however, that she be able to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS had a light-duty policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with nonpregnancy-related disabilities. Specifically, the policy provided for light-duty for workers injured on-the-job, had disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or had lost Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications. Workers with pregnancy-related disabilities were not entitled to light-duty. Therefore, Young’s request for light-duty work (as an accommodation) was denied and instead, Young was provided with an unpaid leave of absence.

Procedural History. Young filed a lawsuit against UPS claiming that it unlawfully discriminated against her in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. After discovery, UPS filed for summary judgment seeking a dismissal of Young’s lawsuit contending that, as a matter of law, its policy did not violate the PDA because it treated pregnant workers the same as all “other” relevant persons, such as workers who injure themselves during a weekend softball game. The District Court agreed with UPS and dismissed Young’s complaint on the grounds that those workers to whom Young had compared herself (workers suffering from workers’ compensation injury, DOT or ADA categories) were too different to qualify as similarly situated comparators. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Legal Background. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifies both (1) that Title VII’s prohibition against sex/gender discrimination applies to discrimination because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and (2) employers must treat women affected by pregnancy the same for all employment-related purposes as other non-pregnant employees but similar in their ability or inability to work.[1]

Young’s lawsuit included a disparate-treatment claim of discrimination which can be proven either by direct evidence that UPS’s policy relies expressly on a protected characteristic or through indirect evidence by using the burden-shifting framework set forth inMcDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.[2] Under this framework, the plaintiff has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination.[3] If she carries this burden, then the employer must set forth a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason(s) for the decision taken.[4] If the employer does so, then the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employer’s reasons were merely pretext for discrimination.[5]

The Supreme Court’s Analysis. The Supreme Court was not persuaded by the parties’ interpretations of the PDA. First, the Court rejected Young’s contention that, where an employer accommodates only a subset of workers with disability conditions, pregnant workers must receive the same treatment even if other non-pregnant workers do not receive such treatment. The Court rejected Young’s contention that pregnant employees should receive unconditional “most favored nation” status.

The Supreme Court also rejected the Solicitor General’s contention that the Court should give special weight to a 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guideline concerning the application of Title VII and the ADA to pregnant employees because the guideline (1) was released after certiorari was granted in this case; (2) takes a position on which previous EEOC guidelines were silent; (3) is inconsistent with positions long advocated by the Government; and (4) does not explain the basis of its conclusions.

While the Supreme Court acknowledged that the PDA allows employers to implement policies that are not intended to harm pregnant workers, even if their implementation sometimes does harm them, as long as the employer has a legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-pretextual reason; it still rejected UPS’s position as well. Rejecting UPS’s claim that the PDA simply defines sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination, the Court explained that this interpretation would prevent the PDA from carrying out a key congressional objective in overturning the holding in General Electric Company v. Gilbert,[6] which upheld a company’s sickness and accident benefit plan that did not provide a disability benefit for absences caused by pregnancy.

The Supreme Court’s Holding. Under this backdrop, the Court modified the McDonnell Douglas framework for denial of accommodation pregnancy discrimination claims under the PDA. The pregnant worker’s initial prima facie case includes demonstrating (1) that she is pregnant; (2) she sought an accommodation; (3) the employer did not accommodate; and (4) the employer accommodated others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” If the plaintiff can meet her prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the employer to set forth its legitimate non-discriminatory reason for denying accommodation, which cannot consist solely of financial considerations or convenience. If successful, then the pregnant worker must prove that the employer’s reasons are mere pretext for discrimination. The Court explained that the pregnant worker can defeat summary judgment and is entitled to a jury trial if she can show that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers or, in other words, that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. For example, the Court explained that, if the facts are as Young says they are, she can show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.

The Bottom Line. On this basis, the Court reversed and remanded the dismissal of Young’s lawsuit and ordered that the lower courts apply the new legal framework that the Court set forth. The lesson learned here is that UPS’s policy of giving light-duty work to nonpregnant injured workers while denying it to pregnant workers could run afoul of the PDA. Employers should be careful to accommodate pregnant workers with pregnancy-related disabilities in light of this opinion; but also, because New York and New Jersey state and local laws already have these requirements.