On March 25, 2015 the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Young v. United States Parcel Service. This is an important case because it clarifies what constitutes unlawful discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”). Employers should carefully review this case and ensure that they are not inadvertently discriminating against pregnant employees by refusing to accommodate their temporary physical restrictions.

Peggy Young (“Ms. Young”) was employed by UPS as a part-time driver. Her primary duties included picking up and delivering overnight packages. During her employment at UPS, Ms. Young became pregnant. Her doctor issued temporary physical restrictions that prohibited her from lifting more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter.

UPS requires its drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds individually and up to 150 lbs with assistance. In an effort to continue working during her pregnancy, Ms. Young asked UPS to accommodate her lifting restrictions by temporarily putting her on light duty. UPS refused to do so, despite the fact, that it had previously accommodated non-pregnant individuals with lifting restrictions (e.g. drivers that suffered on-the-job injuries and drivers that qualified as disabled under the pre-2008 ADA). Because UPS would not accommodate Ms. Young’s lifting restrictions, Ms. Young was forced to stay at home without pay throughout the majority of her pregnancy and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

Ms. Young subsequently filed suit in federal district court. She argued that UPS had engaged in unlawful disparate treatment when it denied her the same privileges it had granted other non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions. In seeking summary judgment on Ms. Young’s disparate treatment claim, UPS argued that pregnant employees with lifting restrictions are not “similarly situated” as compared to individuals qualifying as disabled under the ADA or individuals that had suffered on-the-job injuries. The federal district court granted UPS’s motion and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Fourth Circuit held that (1) UPS’s policies are lawful because they are facially neutral and do not require that pregnant workers be treated differently than non-pregnant workers and (2) because Ms. Young and disabled individuals with lifting restrictions were not similarly situated, evidence that other, non-pregnant employees had been accommodated was not evidence of unlawful discrimination.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the district court and the Fourth Circuit had properly interpreted the PDA. Focusing on the second clause of the PDA, the Supreme Court concluded that both lower courts had wrongly interpreted the PDA.  

The second clause of the PDA, in pertinent part, states the following: “[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.”

The Court held that this clause does not give pregnant employees a “most favored nations” status, meaning an employer is not required to automatically make any accommodation that has previously been offered to a non-pregnant employee available to all pregnant employees regardless of context. However, the Court noted that if the pregnant employee can satisfy her burden of proof under the McDonnell-Douglas framework, then she can create a triable issue of fact as to whether discrimination occurred.

In Young, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff creates a genuine issue of material fact on the final element of the McDonnell-Douglas test by showing that “the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.” As a result, the Supreme Court determined the Fourth Circuit’s reading of the PDA was incorrect because it was overly narrow.

For PDA purposes, pregnant employees with lifting restrictions and non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions can be similarly situated. Under the Supreme Court’s opinion in Young, a court cannot completely ignore the fact that non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions are being accommodated at far higher rates than pregnant employees on the basis that those two classes of people are too different to compare. This conclusion is especially logical given the current state of ADA law. Had this case been litigated today, the employer would have needed to consider whether it was required to offer Ms. Young an accommodation under the ADA.