On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, reversed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granting summary judgment in favor of UPS on Peggy Young’s claim that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) by failing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. In Young v. UPS, the Court provided some guidance with respect to the extent to which an employer is required to accommodate a pregnant employee under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, establishing a new standard of proof for pregnant plaintiffs who believe their employers have improperly denied them accommodations for their pregnancy-related medical conditions.

Background

The first clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (the “PDA”) revised Title VII’s definition of discrimination to make clear that discrimination “because of sex” includes discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The second clause of the PDA 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[.]”

The Petitioner in Young v. UPS relied on this second clause in the PDA to bring her disparate treatment claim against UPS. According to the Petitioner, UPS had policies in place to provide accommodations to a certain subset of its workers, including those who were disabled within the meaning of the ADA or had suffered on-the-job injuries. The Petitioner argued that under the second clause of the PDA, UPS must also accommodate pregnant workers who are similarly unable to work even if other nonpregnant workers did not receive accommodations. The Petitioner contended that UPS’s refusal to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction violated the PDA because, under UPS’s policies, certain other drivers who were similar in their inability to work were treated more favorably than she was.

UPS argued that the second clause of the PDA simply defines sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination, and because UPS’s policies with respect to reasonable accommodation were even-handed, UPS did not violate the PDA when it denied the Petitioner an accommodation based on application of its even-handed policies.

The District Court granted summary judgment on the Petitioner’s disparate treatment claim, finding that the employees who were eligible for light-duty under UPS’s policies were too different from the Petitioner to qualify as “similarly situated comparator[s].” The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In reversing the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, the Court rejected both parties’ interpretations of the PDA’s second clause. Instead, the Court determined that the PDA requires it to consider the extent to which an employer’s policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than nonpregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work. Accordingly, a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the PDA may make out a prima facie case by showing that:

  1. She belongs to the protected class,
  2. She sought an accommodation,
  3. The employer did not accommodate her; and
  4. The employer did accommodate others who were “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Once the plaintiff makes this showing, the employer may then rely on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons” to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff. However, if the plaintiff shows that the employer’s policies regarding accommodation impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons” are “not sufficiently strong” to justify that burden, the plaintiff may prevail on her disparate treatment claim. The Court noted that the plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether the policies impose a “significant burden” by providing statistical evidence, e.g., that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. Under the Court’s interpretation, it is not sufficient for a plaintiff to allege that pregnant and nonpregnant workers were not treated the same; rather, the extent to which the treatment is different will control.

Because the Petitioner presented evidence indicating that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant workers with lifting restrictions while failing to accommodate pregnant workers with similar restrictions, the Court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment. The Court found that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot “reasonably be distinguished” from that of the Petitioner.

In its opinion, the Court declined to give special or controlling weight to the July 2014 guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Leech Tishman reported on the EEOC’s guidance here. In its guidance, the EEOC had taken the position that an 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. This position was similar to the one taken by the Petitioner, which the Court rejected.

Impact on Employers

A fair reading of the Court’s decision in Young v. UPS suggests that employers must be able to demonstrate that their seemingly even-handed policies do not impose a statistically adverse impact on pregnant employees. Therefore, employers should review their accommodation policies and practices in order to determine whether such policies or practices impose a significant burden on pregnant employees. Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS does not require employers that provide accommodations to a subset of workers to provide accommodations to all pregnant employees, employers should ensure that their policies or practices do not disproportionately favor nonpregnant employees. At a minimum, employers should not reject outright a pregnant employee’s request for an accommodation, but rather should engage in an interactive process similar to that required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.