The U.S. Supreme Court recently released a decision holding that a plaintiff may prevail on a pregnancy discrimination claim using a failure-to-accommodate theory. Here’s what employers need to know about the case:
In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the plaintiff was a delivery driver who was required to lift up to 70 pounds for her job. No. 12-1226 (Mar. 25, 2015). After she became pregnant, the employee’s doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds, and she requested an accommodation from UPS. Although UPS had policies that offered similar accommodations to employees who were injured on the job, had disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or who had lost their Department of Transportation Certifications, UPS denied the request because the employee did not fall under any of those policies. Both the district court and the court of appeals rejected the plaintiff’s pregnancy discrimination claim on the grounds that the plaintiff was not similarly situated to the other employees to whom she compared herself.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings and endorsed the failure-to-accommodate theory of liability that the plaintiff presented. Although the Supreme Court recognized that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not give pregnant workers “most-favored nation” status, the Court explained that a pregnant employee can make a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that: (i) she belongs to the protected class; (ii) she sought accommodation; (iii) the employer did not accommodate her; and (iv) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.
If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer may justify its refusal to accommodate with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. But the Court cautioned that the employer’s justification “normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (‘similar in their ability or inability to work’) whom the employer accommodates.”
If the employer presents a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its denial of the requested accommodation, the employee must then present evidence that the asserted reason is a pretext for pregnancy discrimination. The Court explained that a plaintiff can satisfy this burden by “providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.” Alternatively, a plaintiff can create an issue of material fact by “providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”
Takeaway: The failure-to-accommodate theory of liability endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Young is a new theory of liability for pregnancy discrimination claims. Employers should review their policies and practices to ensure compliance. The decision will likely not have a significant impact for employers in Minnesota, however, because Minnesota state law already requires most employers to accommodate pregnant workers.