The United States Supreme Court recently decided to make it easier for a pregnant employee to obtain an accommodation in the closely-watched pregnancy discrimination case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Peggy Young, a United Parcel Service (“UPS”) driver who claimed she was discriminated against based on her pregnancy when she was refused a light duty accommodation that was made available to other employees with similar restrictions. The decision reversed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling and permitted Young to pursue her claim for pregnancy discrimination.

Background

While working for UPS, Young was responsible for the pickup and delivery of packages. In 2006, after suffering several miscarriages, she became pregnant. Young’s doctor advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during her first 20 weeks of pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS, however, required drivers like Young to be able to lift up to 70 pounds, and informed her that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of her pregnancy and eventually lost her employee medical coverage. She subsequently filed a lawsuit, claiming that UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).

In her lawsuit, Young asserted that UPS had accommodated other drivers with similar work restrictions, and that UPS must grant pregnant employees those same accommodations. UPS responded that no policy could violate the PDA if it did not single out pregnancy as the only condition that did not merit some particular accommodation. UPS said the other drivers whom it had accommodated were:

  1. drivers who had become disabled on the job;
  2. those who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications; and
  3. those who suffered from a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

UPS, therefore, said that Young did not fall within any of these categories, and that UPS had treated her the same as all other “relevant” employees.

A federal district court in Maryland granted judgment without a trial in UPS’s favor, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Fourth Circuit found that employers are not required under the PDA to provide pregnant employees with light-duty assignments so long as the employer treats pregnant employees the same as similarly-situated non-pregnant employees with respect to providing accommodations. As long as the policy was pregnancy-neutral, the appeals court found it did not run afoul of the PDA.

Supreme Court’s Decision

Young asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider her case, and it agreed to do so. She argued that if an employer accommodates even one or two non-pregnant employees, the employer must provide this same accommodation to all pregnant employees. UPS asserted that an employer may have a facially neutral policy, such as a policy that accommodates employees with on-the-job injuries, because pregnant or non-pregnant employees with injuries unrelated to work are treated the same.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected both parties’ arguments and provided a new framework for pregnant employees challenging accommodation policies under the PDA. Using a burden-shifting analysis, a pregnant employee may establish sufficient evidence of disparate treatment by showing that:

  1. she belonged to a protected class;
  2. she sought an accommodation;
  3. the employer did not accommodate her; and
  4. the employer did accommodate others similar in their ability or inability to work.

UPS would then have the opportunity to set forth its legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying the pregnant employee’s accommodation. Finally, to prevail, the employee must show that the employer’s reasons were pretext for unlawful discrimination.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit, holding that Young had demonstrated sufficient evidence of discrimination because UPS had accommodation policies that, taken together, demonstrate a genuine dispute as to whether the Company provided more favorable treatment to at least some categories of employees under similar circumstances. The Court also noted that these policies could significantly burden pregnant employees. On remand, the Fourth Circuit must determine whether UPS has a sufficiently strong reason for refusing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting restrictions while accommodating non-pregnant employees with similar restrictions.

Bottom Line

This decision could prompt an uptick in pregnancy discrimination cases. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, employers should review their workplace policies to ensure compliance with the PDA and ADA with respect to accommodations for pregnant women. Employers should also make sure that light duty policies that apply to some categories of employees, such as those with workplace injuries, also apply to pregnant women. It would be prudent to establish procedures for determining what accommodations are necessary and appropriate, as well as train supervisors on how to respond to pregnant employees’ requests for accommodation.