The decision in Young v. UPS revives discrimination claims but takes a dim view of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2014 Pregnancy Guidelines.

On March 25, the US Supreme Court vacated a US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed summary judgment in a pregnancy-discrimination case brought by a female United Parcel Service (UPS) driver. The decision strikes a middle ground, holding that employers may be required to accommodate pregnant employees in some circumstances while explicitly refusing to defer to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) employee-friendly 2014 Pregnancy Guidelines.

Background

The case was brought by Peggy Young, who requested light duty after becoming pregnant. UPS drivers must be able to lift up to 70 pounds, but as soon as she became pregnant, Ms. Young brought a note from her doctor stating that she would not be able to lift more than 20 pounds for the first half of her pregnancy and no more than 10 pounds for the second half. UPS had a policy of limiting light duty to three categories of employees: (1) those who had been injured on the job, as required by the applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA); 2) those who had lost their Department of Transportation certification—also required by the applicable CBA; and 3) those who were disabled under the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Ms. Young did not fit into any of these categories. As such, she was denied light duty and instead accommodated with an extended leave of absence. Ms. Young returned to work after giving birth.

Notwithstanding UPS’s decision to grant Ms. Young extra leave (far in excess of her entitlement under the Family and Medical Leave Act), she sued the company, alleging discrimination on the basis of her race and gender in violation of Title VII, her pregnancy in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and her disability in violation of the ADA. The US District Court for the District of Maryland awarded summary judgment to UPS. Ms. Young appealed her ADA and PDA claims only.

In a unanimous decision, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the award of summary judgment to UPS, concluding that the record contained no evidence to suggest that UPS perceived Ms. Young to be disabled (only that she could not lift more than 20 pounds) and finding that UPS did not discriminate against Ms. Young on the basis of her pregnancy. UPS’s light-duty policy was pregnancy-neutral, the Fourth Circuit explained, which is all that the PDA requires. Ms. Young petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion

Reversing the decisions below it, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Circuit’s reading of the PDA was too narrow. But, the Supreme Court also found that the reading advanced by Ms. Young was too broad.

The conflict centers on a provision of the PDA that reads “[W]omen 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.” 

Ms. Young argued that this provision requires employers to provide pregnant women with any and all accommodations provided to other employees with similar physical restrictions—no matter the reason for the limitation. In contrast, UPS argued that this clause requires only that pregnant women be treated the same as similarly situated nonpregnant employees—i.e., employers must adopt policies that are pregnancy-blind.

The Supreme Court’s opinion rejects both approaches and describes Ms. Young’s reading of this provision as “too much” because it effectively grants pregnant women a “most favored-nation status.”  If Ms. Young’s interpretation were accurate, the Supreme Court said, then, any time an employer “provides one or two workers with an accommo­dation—say, those with particularly hazardous jobs, or those whose workplace presence is particularly needed, or those who have worked at the company for many years, or those who are over the age of 55—then it must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers (with comparable physical limitations), irrespective of the na­ture of their jobs, the employer’s need to keep them work­ing, their ages, or any other criteria.”

This cannot be true, the Court held, because “disparate-treatment law normally permits an employer to implement policies that are not intended to harm members of a protected class, even if their imple­mentation sometimes harms those members, as long as the employer has a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, non-pre­textual reason for doing so.” There is no reason to believe that Congress intended the PDA to deviate from this approach, the Court reasoned.

Refusing Deference for the EEOC’s Pregnancy Guidelines

In rejecting Ms. Young’s reading of the PDA, the Supreme Court took a dim view of the EEOC’s Pregnancy Guidelines, which were promulgated in July 2014 after the Court granted certiorari in Young v. UPS, and which explicitly adopted Ms. Young’s reading of the PDA. The Court chastised the EEOC for taking a sudden position that was inconsistent with its own prior guidance on the PDA and said that the EEOC had failed to “explain the basis of its latest guidance.”

That said, the Court also rejected UPS’s reading of the PDA as too narrow. The PDA, the Court explained, was passed to overrule certain Supreme Court cases in the late 1970s holding that it was lawful to provide sickness and accident benefits to all employees while excluding disabilities that arise from pregnancy—because pregnancy is fundamentally different from other sicknesses and injuries. UPS’s view, the Supreme Court held, ignored this piece of history.

A New Prima Facie Standard

Striking a middle ground, the Supreme Court then articulated a new prima facie burden for plaintiffs alleging disparate treatment under the PDA. A plaintiff must show that (1) she belongs to a protected class, (2) she sought accommodation, (3) her employer did not accommodate her, and (4) her employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability to or inability to work.” The employer may then present its legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the denial of accommodation.

But, the Court admonished “that reason 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 an employer accommodates.”

Although the burden remains with the plaintiff to show that an employer’s proffered reasons are pretextual, the majority stated

We believe that the plaintiff may reach a jury [decision] 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, non-discriminatory” 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.

A plaintiff may meet her burden by showing evidence that an employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

Ultimately, the Court found that Ms. Young had created a genuine factual dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to employees who were similarly situated to her in their “ability to or inability to work.” In particular, the Court directed the Fourth Circuit to consider testimony that the only employees who were regularly denied light duty were pregnant women. On remand, the Court urged the Fourth Circuit to consider the combined effects of UPS’s light duty policies—which gave light duty to broad groups of employees but excluded pregnant employees—as well as the strength of UPS’s justifications for its policies, when viewed together.

Implications for Employers

The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that employers may have some duty to accommodate pregnancy-related work restrictions if they are otherwise accommodating similar restrictions for a large group of nonpregnant employees. Employers should review their accommodation policies and any light-duty policies and consider training for human resources employees and managers on their obligations to pregnant employees.