On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 12-1226, and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for further consideration. As a result of the Court’s decision, pregnant women denied workplace accommodations that are granted to other categories of employees are more likely to succeed in legal claims against their employers.

Factual Background

In Young v. UPS, Peggy Young, a delivery driver for UPS, was advised by her doctors not to lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. UPS policy required employees to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. Due to Young’s inability to fulfill this work requirement, as well as the fact that she had used all her available family and medical leave, UPS forced Young to take an extended, unpaid leave of absence. During this time, she lost her medical coverage. She gave birth in April 2007 and resumed working at UPS thereafter.

Young sued UPS, claiming she had been the victim of discrimination based on gender and disability under the American with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (the “PDA”). Young was treated like other employees who were on leave because of a non-work-related illness or injury. However, she claimed she was discriminated against based on her pregnancy because light duty was made available to employees who were injured on the job, had disabilities, or lost their Department of Transportation driving certification, including those charged with drunk driving.

UPS moved for summary judgment, arguing that Young could not show that UPS’s decision was based on her pregnancy or that she was treated differently than a similarly situated co-worker. UPS also argued that it had no obligation to offer Young accommodations under the ADA because Young’s pregnancy did not constitute a disability.

The crux of the issue was defining the correct comparator: Are pregnant women entitled to the same accommodations as employees covered by the ADA? Or can they be offered lesser accommodations provided to individuals who have a non-disabling, non-work-related illness or injury?

Supreme Court’s Holding

The Court held that an individual pregnant worker who seeks to show disparate treatment through indirect evidence may do so through the application of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. However, the Court rejected the arguments made by both parties regarding the application of the second clause of the PDA, which provides:

[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. . . .

Young claimed that as long as “an employer accommodates only a subset of workers with disabling conditions,” “pregnant workers who are similar in the ability to work [must] receive the same treatment even if still other nonpregnant workers do not receive accommodations.” The Court rejected her position, explaining that Congress did not intend to grant pregnant workers an unconditional “most favored nation” status, such that employers that provide accommodations to one or two employees must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers regardless of any other criteria. The Court also rejected the EEOC’s position, as expressed in guidance promulgated in July 2014 — after the Court had granted certiorari in the case — that would have supported Young’s position.

But the Court also was not persuaded by UPS’s claim that the second clause simply defines sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination, because the first clause — which provides that Title VII’s “ter[m] ‘because of sex’ . . . include[s] . . . because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” — already accomplishes that objective, and thus UPS’s  interpretation would render the first clause superfluous. In the Court’s view, UPS’s argument would entail eviscerating the PDA and ignoring its fundamental underlying intent.

Under the Court’s ruling, to demonstrate disparate treatment, the pregnant employee must show she was subjected to intentional discrimination. To make this showing, the employee must demonstrate that her employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers, and that the employer has not raised a “sufficiently strong” reason to justify that burden. An employee may show that a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers without accommodating a large percentage of pregnant employees. Thus, policies that provide accommodations or light duty to some employees, but not pregnant women, will likely be considered to impose a significant burden on pregnant workers.

The Court explained that the employer’s 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” accommodated by the employer. While the Court did not explain what justifications are strong enough, a defense by the employer based on cost or difficulty is unlikely to prevail. Indeed, as Justice Breyer asked, “[W]hy, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”

Impact of Court’s Decision

Employers can ensure that they are in compliance with laws relating to pregnant employees by:

  • Understanding that many state and local laws provide additional safeguards for pregnant women, including the relief sought by Young;
  • Reviewing accommodation, leave, scheduling, and attendance policies to make sure pregnant workers are not disfavored;
  • Considering amending current policies to include accommodations based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, such as breast-feeding;
  • Making sure that light duty policies that apply to some categories of workers also apply to pregnant employees; and
  • Training supervisors regarding  the  law  and  how to respond to a pregnant employee’s need for accommodation.

Impact on the EEOC Guidance

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Young effectively overturned a portion of the EEOC’s Guidance, the balance was unaffected. The Guidance includes a long list of best practices, including the following:

  • Leave related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions can be limited to women affected by those conditions. Parental leave must be provided to similarly situated men and women on the same terms.
  • Employers should review workplace policies that limit employee flexibility, such as fixed hours of work and mandatory overtime, to ensure that they are necessary for business operations.
  • Employers should ensure that employees who are on leaves of absence due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions have access to training, if desired, while out of the workplace.
  • Employers should review any light duty policies to ensure that the policies are structured to provide pregnant employees with access to light duty equal to that provided to people with similar limitations on their ability to work.
  • Employers should, where feasible, temporarily reassign job duties that employees are unable to perform because of pregnancy or related medical conditions.
  • Employers should have a process in place to expeditiously consider reasonable accommodation requests made by employees with pregnancy-related disabilities, and for granting accommodations where appropriate.
  • Employers should state explicitly in any written reasonable accommodation policy that reasonable accommodations may be available to individuals with temporary impairments, including impairments related to pregnancy.
  • Employers should ensure that anyone designated to handle requests for reasonable accommodations understands that the defi ni ti on of the term “disability” is broad and that employees requesting accommodations, including employees with pregnancy- related impairments, should not be required to submit more than reasonable documentation to establish that they have covered disabilities.​​​

For companies with employees in New York City, the Supreme Court’s decision in Young will have little practical impact as New York City has already enacted a pregnancy accommodation law that parallels the EEOC’s Guidance. While New York State does not provide similar protections, several other states have enacted comparable pregnancy accommodation provisions.