On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court by a 6-3 margin overturned the Fourth Circuit’s grant of summary judgment in favor of United Parcel Service in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit, remanding the case for a trial. The Supreme Court’s decision, while reviving the plaintiff employee’s lawsuit, does not provide a clear, bright line rule regarding accommodations for pregnant employees. Rather, the Court sets forth a standard for resolving these types of cases.
Under the ruling, an individual pregnant worker who seeks to assert a disparate treatment pregnancy discrimination claim may make out a prima facie case by showing that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying accommodation. A claim that it is more expensive or less convenient for the employer to add pregnant women to the category of those it accommodates will generally not be sufficient. If the employer offers a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the plaintiff may show that it is in fact pretextual. The plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue 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.
The case arose after part-time UPS driver Peggy Young became pregnant, her doctor recommended that she lift no more than 20 pounds in her first 20 weeks of pregnancy and that she lift no more than 10 pounds during the duration of her pregnancy. When Young presented UPS with this requested accommodation, UPS told her she could not work while under the requested lifting restriction and placed her on unpaid leave. Young consequently stayed home during the duration of her pregnancy and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.
Young filed suit, arguing that UPS provided the light duty accommodation to other non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions, and therefore discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. UPS argued that its neutral policy of only accommodating drivers who became disabled while on the job, drivers who had lost their DOT certifications and drivers suffering from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act did not adversely affect pregnant employees. The district court granted summary judgment in UPS’s favor, finding that Young could not show the company intentionally discriminated against her, and that she could not compare herself with the individuals UPS would accommodate.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed for UPS, finding that its policy was pregnancy-blind and furthered a neutral and legitimate business practice. The Fourth Circuit also agreed that Young could not show that she was treated less favorably than non-pregnant employees, because she, as a pregnant employee, was not considered disabled.
The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit and verbalized the prima facie case standard discussed above for a pregnancy discrimination claim. The Court, in reversing the Fourth Circuit and remanding for a trial, specifically stated that a plaintiff’s burden to show pregnancy discrimination is “not onerous.” The plaintiff need not show that those the employer favors and those the employer disfavors are similar in all but protected ways.
Employers should consider seeking legal counsel when determining whether, and under what circumstances, to provide light duty as an accommodation.