By a 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court created a potentially new standard by which employers’ accommodations given or denied to pregnant women will be judged under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).

In Young v. UPS, the plaintiff, Peggy Young, was deemed unable to work her part-time driver position once her physician placed her on a 20-pound lifting restriction.  Young was placed on an unpaid leave, and returned to work after the birth of her child; however, Young subsequently filed a lawsuit against UPS alleging the company violated the PDA in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction and not assigning her to a light duty position.  At the time, UPS allowed employees to work light duty only if the employee was injured or otherwise disabled on the job, if the employee lost his/her Department of Transportation certification or if the employee suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  At the time Young’s lifting restriction was imposed, Young fell within none of these categories.

Both the district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UPS, concluding that Young was not “similarly situated” to the categories of employees who were eligible for light duty.  In presenting her case to the Supreme Court, Young argued that the PDA required employers to accommodate pregnant women if any subclass of employee with a debilitating condition was provided an accommodation.  In contrast, UPS argued that an employer only had a duty to treat “similarly situated” employees similarly, and since pregnancy-related conditions were not similar to those categories of employees who were granted accommodations, no duty to accommodate existed.

The Supreme Court rejected both Young’s and UPS’s positions, and created its own standard.  The Supreme Court interpreted “similarly situated” to mean “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  Once an employee shows that her employer provided accommodation to others within this category, the burden then falls upon the employer to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification by denying accommodation to pregnant women while granting accommodation to other employees.  Because no such analysis had been done by the lower courts, the Supreme Court remanded this case back to the Fourth Circuit for further review.

Importantly, the Supreme Court also rejected the Solicitor General’s argument that the Court should give special, if not controlling weight, to the EEOC’s 2014 Guidance concerning the application of Title VII and the ADA to pregnant employees. The Supreme Court noted, that the guidance “lacks the timing, ‘consistency’ and ‘thoroughness’ of ‘consideration’ necessary to ‘give it power to persuade’” under the Supreme Court precedent set forth in Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140. The Court further noted that the guidance was promulgated after certiorari was granted; took a position on which previous EEOC guidelines were silent; was inconsistent with positions long advocated by the Government; and the EEOC did not explain the basis for its guidance.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, employers should reevaluate their policies and practices regarding the accommodation of pregnant applicants and employees.  In particular, in comparing the accommodation of pregnant workers, it will be necessary to compare restrictions/limitations with those of other employees who are accommodated, rather than the circumstances giving rise to the medical condition. It is important to note that the EEOC’s 2014 Guidance will require changes in light of the Supreme Court’s decision and therefore is of limited utility.  However, other legislation discussed in the EEOC’s 2014 Guidance, such as the 2008 ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”), which expanded the ADA’s protections to include conditions or complications related to pregnancy, will still need to be considered.  The ADAAA did not apply to Young’s condition as it postdated her leave.  If it had, then the ADAAA would likely have required provision of light duty as a reasonable accommodation.  Further, several states, including Illinois have passed legislation requiring accommodation of pregnant employees.  In fact, the Supreme Court, in its opinion, acknowledged that recent statutory changes could limit the future significance of its interpretation of the PDA.