Last week, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Young v. UPS, a closely-watched pregnancy discrimination case filed by a female driver at UPS. The Court held that although employers are not required to give pregnant workers exactly the same accommodations as those offered to workers with other temporary disabilities, employers must provide legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for any difference in treatment to avoid liability for pregnancy discrimination.

The origins of the case date back to 2006, when plaintiff Peggy Young asked UPS to accommodate her need for temporary lifting restrictions after she became pregnant. In response, UPS told Young she did not qualify for "light duty" accommodations, and that she could not return to work until she was able to resume full duty work (i.e., until she wasn't pregnant).

Young sued UPS for violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against female employees based on pregnancy. Young argued that other UPS workers had been granted "light duty" accommodations when they experienced temporary disabilities, and that she had been denied similar accommodations simply because she was pregnant. UPS argued that it offered accommodations only to workers who fell into certain categories, including those who had been injured on the job, those with conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and those who had lost their license to drive commercial vehicles. Because Young didn't fit into any of those categories, UPS argued, it treated her the same as other UPS workers who were injured off-the-job.

Young's case was dismissed first by a Federal District Court, and then again on appeal to the Fourth Circuit. Because both courts granted summary judgment to UPS before the case made it to trial, the evidence was never presented to a jury. Young appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a 6-3 decision penned by Justice Breyer, the Court found that Young's claim should not have been dismissed prior to trial. The Court remanded Young's case to the Fourth Circuit for review in light of its opinion.

Regardless of whether Young ultimately prevails, the Supreme Court's decision has the potential to impact employers, such that the following points are worthy of special consideration:

  • 1. The Supreme Court's decision may not require employers to provide pregnant workers with the same accommodations as those offered to other workers in every situation, but employers should be careful whenever a pregnant worker's request for accommodations is treated differently than similar requests made by non-pregnant employees, and should confirm that a legitimate, non-discriminatory, and compelling business reason supports this different treatment.
  • 2. Young's case originated in 2006, prior to passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). The ADAAA broadened and clarified the ADA's definition of the term "disability," bringing many more types of impairment within the scope of the ADA. Of particular relevance to the issue of pregnancy discrimination, the ADA's definition of "disability" was amended to include impairments that substantially limit an individual's ability to stand, lift, or bend.

    Since passage of the ADAAA, employers have been required to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions meeting the expanded definition of "disability" (which most pregnancy-related conditions do). In Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court made passing reference to the fact that Young's case was decided based on the ADA as it existed in 2006, and that the ADA amendments passed in 2008 could impact the significance of the Court's decision.

  • 3. Young v. UPS sets a lower burden for plaintiffs in pregnancy discrimination cases to survive summary judgment. Combined with the fact that many pregnancy discrimination cases now also fall within the purview of the amended ADA, this means that more plaintiffs will probably succeed in getting their cases heard by a jury. For this reason, claims of pregnancy discrimination should be addressed and resolved before litigation begins.
  • 4. Workplace policies that appear to have a disparate impact on pregnant workers will be met with increased judicial scrutiny. Employers should review and amend their policies related to leave, reasonable accommodation, light duty assignments, attendance, disability, and scheduling to ensure compliance with the law. Managers and human resources personnel should be trained on any new or amended policies and procedures, and should understand how to respond to pregnant workers' accommodation needs and requests.

    Smart employers will also review the granting or denial of any recent pregnancy-related accommodation requests, and continue to review future accommodation decisions, in order to assess whether pregnant workers are, in fact, being treated the same or differently than other workers seeking accommodations. Being able to prove that you took steps not only to train personnel, but also to ensure actual compliance with pregnancy discrimination policies, could well prove the difference between a discrimination claim that quickly (and inexpensively) fizzles out, and a discrimination claim that takes root and ends up costing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

  • 5. A number of states and localities - such as California, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, New York City, and Philadelphia - have already passed laws requiring employers to accommodate the needs of pregnant women. In some cases, these laws provide even greater protection to pregnant employees than the PDA or ADA. Thus, employers should consult with employment counsel to ensure they are in compliance with all relevant federal, state, and local laws.