Supreme Court Revives Pregnancy Discrimination Suit But Denies Pregnant Employees “Most-Favored-Nation” Status

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court revived an employee’s pregnancy discrimination suit against UPS, finding that the employee had presented a genuine issue of material fact regarding her employer’s refusal to grant her a special accommodation for her pregnancy-related work restrictions.  After the Eastern District of Virginia and the Fourth Circuit both held that the employee could not prevail on her claim as a matter of law, the employee appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  In a 6-3 decision, the Court reversed the ruling of the Fourth Circuit and sent the case back down for further proceedings.

Peggy Young, the plaintiff in this case, was a part-time driver for UPS.  After she got pregnant, Young’s doctor told her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds after that for the remainder of her pregnancy.  UPS, however, requires drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds without assistance.  When Young told UPS that she was under a lifting restriction, the company told her that she could not work during her pregnancy because she could not satisfy the company’s lifting requirements.  While UPS provided temporary alternative work assignments to employees who were injured on the job, Young was not eligible because her pregnancy did not qualify under the policy.  Young went on unpaid leave for much of her pregnancy and returned to work about two months after her child was born.  She filed a lawsuit against UPS, arguing that the company should have found a way to accommodate her lifting restriction rather than putting her on unpaid leave.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) provides that

“women 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.”

To prevail on her claim against UPS, Young had to establish that she was intentionally treated less favorably than other employees who were not pregnant.  Young argued that UPS accommodated other non-pregnant employees who had medical restrictions.  She contended that it was a violation of the PDA for UPS to accommodate a subset of workers with disabling conditions but to refuse to provide those same accommodations for pregnant women, even if it didn’t provide the accommodations to other, non-pregnant workers.

UPS countered that the employees it accommodated had disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or were injured on the job.  So, UPS argued, Young was not being singled out based on her pregnancy; she was simply being treated the same as all other employees who were not disabled or injured on the job.  UPS averred that the PDA requires only that employers provide accommodations on a pregnancy-neutral basis.  In other words, employers should be able to provide different accommodations to certain subsets of employees as long as the decision is not made based on pregnancy status.

The Supreme Court disagreed with both of the parties’ interpretations of the PDA’s requirements.  The Court found that Young’s approach to the PDA was overreaching and would give pregnant employees “an unconditional most-favored-nation status.”  The Court further noted that the law “normally permits an employer to implement policies that are not intended to harm members of a protected class, even if their implementation sometimes harms those members, as long as the employer has a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual reason for doing so”, and there is no reason to believe that Congress intended the PDA to deviate from this approach. On the other hand, the Court found that Young had at least raised a genuine dispute as to whether the other employees UPS accommodated were not reasonably distinguished from Young.

So what’s the takeaway?  Well, employers can take comfort in the fact that the Supreme Court didn’t find UPS’s policy to be outright discriminatory.  It is also significant that the Court declined to adopt a “most-favored-nation” status for pregnant employees.  On the other hand, employers who have accommodation policies similar to UPS’s may need to reconsider such a blanket rule.