The U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision today in a case involving whether an employer must provide light duty to pregnant employees if it provides light duty to certain other employees. The Supreme Court ruled that it might be discriminatory for an employer not to do so.
The issue in the case centers on the interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The PDA specifies that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition,” and further provides 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.”
Peggy Young, a part-time UPS delivery driver, sued UPS claiming that UPS violated the PDA by not providing her with light duty work during her pregnancy. Young’s doctor told her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS denied that it discriminated against Young because of her pregnancy, since it did not single out pregnant women under its light duty policy. Rather, UPS contended that under its policy, the only drivers whom UPS accommodated with light duty were those: (1) who had restrictions resulting from an on-the-job injury; (2) who lost their DOT certifications; and (3) who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since Young did not fall into any of those three categories, UPS contended that it treated her just like it treated all other employees, male or female, for whom it did not provide light duty if they were limited in their ability to lift as a result of events that occurred off the job.
The federal district court, agreeing with UPS, granted UPS’s motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit also agreed with UPS and affirmed the dismissal. Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6–3 decision reversed and remanded the case for a possible trial. Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.,575 U.S. _______ (2015).
The issue of whether an employer must provide light duty work to pregnant employees when it does so in certain limited situations, but not in other situations involving temporary restrictions that result from non-work related events, has been hotly debated for many years in a number of cases with conflicting results. Instead of resolving the conflict with certainty, however, the Supreme Court actually rejected the absolute positions advanced by both Young and UPS. Rather, the Supreme Court adopted a “middle ground” leaving the door open where an employer still could attempt to defend a light duty policy similar to the one UPS had in place, by demonstrating that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-pretextual reason for the policy.
It also is noteworthy that the EEOC previously has issued guidance on the issue, including a guideline in July 2014, stating that “[a]n employer may not refuse to treat a pregnant worker the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work by relying on a policy that makes distinctions based on the source of an employee’s limitations (e.g., a policy of providing light duty only to workers injured on the job)”. Although the Supreme Court did not rely significantly on the EEOC’s “guidance”, employers still should be cognizant of the EEOC’s position on the issue.
The issue of whether an employer must provide light duty to a pregnant employee is further complicated by potential obligations under the ADA to accommodate medical conditions a pregnant employee may have that constitute a “disability”. Plainly, as a result of today’s Supreme Court’s decision, employers who provide some employees with light duty, but not to pregnant employees with temporary restrictions during their pregnancy, should carefully review their existing policy to evaluate whether any modifications in their policy or how it is administered are required.