The U.S. Supreme Court has revived a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by a part-time employee who had been placed on unpaid leave while she was expecting a baby – a decision that puts employers on notice that they should review their policies for accommodating pregnant employees.  Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 12–1226, __ U.S. ___ (2015).

Background

The case stems from a federal lawsuit brought by Peggy Young alleging that her employer violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The PDA was signed into law in 1987 to make clear that the prohibition of gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also includes a prohibition of discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. 

Young worked as a pickup and delivery driver for UPS. When she became pregnant in 2006, her doctor restricted her from lifting more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and no more than 10 pounds for the remainder of her term. However, her employer required drivers in her position to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds. As a result, Young was placed on unpaid leave and eventually lost her employee medical coverage. After she gave birth, Young returned to work.

In 2008, Young filed a lawsuit against UPS in federal district court alleging that the company discriminated against her by not placing her on light duty work when she became pregnant. Her employer contended that the company complied with the law because it provided light duty work only in certain situations. At the time, UPS accommodated drivers injured on the job; drivers with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications. As such, UPS argued that its decision not to provide an accommodation to Young was non-discriminatory because it followed a company policy that did not take an employee’s pregnancy into account. 

Agreeing with UPS, the district court dismissed Young’s case at the summary judgment stage, and Young appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses North and South Carolina. In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the Fourth Circuit in 2013 held that UPS had not violated the PDA because it had a “pregnancy-blind policy” that was a “neutral and legitimate business practice” on its face.  

Supreme Court's Decision a Middle Ground

But on March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the lower courts’ dismissal in a 6-3 decision and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for further proceedings. The opinion was written by Justice Stephen Breyer, who was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas dissented.

  At issue in the Court’s decision was the clause in the PDA requiring employers to treat pregnant women “the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” In interpreting that clause, the Court found that Young had created a genuine dispute as to whether UPS had more favorably treated at least some employees whose situation could not reasonably be distinguished from hers. In the Court’s own words, it sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit to determine “whether Young also created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’ reasons for having treated Young less favorably than these other nonpregnant employees were pretextual.”

While the decision was a win for Young, it actually reflects a middle ground. The Court disagreed with UPS’ argument that its decision not to provide an accommodation to Young was non-discriminatory because it followed a “pregnancy-blind” policy. However, the Court also was not persuaded by Young’s argument that employers are required to accommodate pregnant women when they accommodate any non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability to work: “We agree with UPS to this extent: We doubt that Congress intended to grant pregnant workers an unconditional most-favored-nation status.”  

New Standard

Instead, the Court created a new approach to the critical clause of the PDA. Making use of the burden-shifting analysis applied to other discrimination claims under Title VII, the Court held that:

  • An employee can establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination 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.’”  
  • If an employee meets that requirement, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its treatment of the employee. The Court added, “consistent with the Act’s basic objective, 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 the employer accommodates.”  
  • After the employer articulates a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its treatment of the employee, the employee has another chance by showing (a) that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers; and (b) 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.” (emphasis added)  

Where Does This Leave Employers?

The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that employers, under some circumstances, should be allowed to accommodate some groups of employees without also accommodating pregnant employees. However, because the legal burden to justify accommodation policies now appears to be fairly rigorous, employers might have a difficult time doing that. Also, exactly where the dividing line falls between compliance and non-compliance will have to be sorted out as pregnancy discrimination claims come before lower courts. Therefore, in the meantime employers should review their policies and practices on how they accommodate pregnant employees to ensure that they stay within the confines of the law:

  • Make sure company policies dealing with light duty work available to some categories of employees also make it available to pregnant women.  
  • Review company policies on pregnant employees to ensure compliance not just with the PDA but also with the ADA. Since 2008, the ADA requires employers to provide necessary accommodations to pregnant women with pregnancy-related conditions that meet the definition of “disability,” a definition that most pregnancy-related conditions do meet.   
  • Create practices and procedures for determining what accommodations are necessary and appropriate for pregnant employees.  
  • Train human resources employees, managers, and supervisors on how to respond properly to requests for accommodation by pregnant employees.

Read the Supreme Court’s full opinion in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., by clicking here.