On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling for the plaintiff-appellant in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. The suit was originally filed in 2008 by Peggy Young, who worked as a UPS driver before becoming pregnant. Young’s doctor instructed her not to lift more than twenty pounds during her pregnancy. UPS refused to provide her this “light duty” and declared her unfit to perform the essential functions of her job. Although the lawsuit originally involved other claims, the Supreme Court limited its review to the issue of whether this constituted a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (the “PDA”), which states that 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.”
Young pointed to the many other ways in which UPS accommodated its other employees. For example, UPS accommodated workers who were injured on the job or had disabilities that were covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). Young also alleged that UPS provided “inside” jobs to drivers who lost their Department of Transportation certifications because of a failed medical exam, a lost driver’s license (even in the case of a conviction for driving under the influence), or involvement in a motor vehicle accident. Yet, Young argued, UPS refused to make accommodations for her, when her restriction was similar to those individuals. UPS, on the other hand, argued that it had treated Young just as it would treat any other worker with similar lifting restrictions caused by an “off-the-job injury or condition.” (UPS has since voluntarily changed its policy.)
A New Standard for Finding a Violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The lower courts had ruled in favor of UPS on summary judgment, holding that the denial of light duty work was not a violation of the PDA. The Supreme Court’s reversal is not a declaration that the conduct was unlawful — it simply sends the case back to the lower courts, instructing them to use a different legal standard to evaluate the case.
The high court articulated a new standard, borrowed from the Court’s 1973 McDonnell Douglasdecision, which clarifies what kind of proof a worker needs to offer in order to advance a claim of pregnancy bias. She must offer evidence that (1) she is in the protected group (pregnant); (2) she asked to be accommodated when she could not fulfill the normal duties of her job; (3) the employer refused to accommodate her; and (4) the employer actually did provide accommodations for others who are just as unable to do their work temporarily.
Once the worker makes those points, the employer then must show that it has a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying the accommodation. Furthermore, such legitimate reasons do not include that it is simply more expensive or less convenient to accommodate pregnant women. The employee then gets the opportunity to argue that the employer’s neutral reason was really a pretext for discrimination.
In proving pretext, the employee can argue that the workplace policy puts a “significant burden” on pregnant workers, and the employer’s non-discriminatory reason is “not sufficiently strong” to justify that burden. The Court noted that if a plaintiff provides evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers, but fails to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers, she has defeated summary judgment.
EEOC Regulations Will Have to Be Changed
In 1979, soon after the PDA was passed, the EEOC issued guidance explaining that “[d]isabilities caused or contributed to by pregnancy . . . for all job-related purposes, shall be treated the same as disabilities caused or contributed to by other medical conditions.” See 29 CFR §1604.10(b) (1979). That guidance, essentially requiring employers to treat pregnancy-related incapacity just like non-pregnancy-related disabilities, wasn’t helpful when an employer did not treat all non-pregnancy-related disabilities alike. For example, UPS made accommodations for on-the-job injuries, but did not make accommodations for off-the-job injuries. Under these regulations, it was unclear whether UPS was required to treat pregnant workers “the same as” the injured-on-the-job workers or the injured-off-the-job workers.
In July of 2014, the EEOC promulgated additional guidance seemingly in conflict with this 1979 guidance. It wrote, “An employer may not refuse to treat a pregnant worker the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work by relying on a policy that makes distinctions based on the source of an employee’s limitations (e.g., a policy of providing light duty only to workers injured on the job).” 2 EEOC Compliance Manual §626-I(A)(5), p. 626:0009 (July 2014). The EEOC also added that “an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries.” Id., at 626:0028.
These guidelines will now have to be changed, as the Supreme Court declined to give them controlling weight. The Court pointed out that the 2014 guidance was issued after the Court had granted certiorari in this case. Perhaps more importantly, it called them inconsistent, citing various briefs filed in other pregnancy discrimination cases in which the U.S. Government advocated for the opposite position.
What Does this Mean for My Workplace?
Ultimately, the Court’s decision to revive Young’s claim is not a clear victory for either party. It simply sends the case back to the lower courts, instructing them to use the legal standard borrowed from McDonnell Douglas to evaluate the case. The decision did not offer a definitive answer to the questions of whether or under what circumstances employers are required to accommodate pregnant employees under the PDA. In the meantime, however, the case provides a few important take-aways for employers.
First, employers should reexamine their workplace policies to ensure that they do not categorically refuse to accommodate pregnant women, as it appears UPS did here.
Employers should also take a hard look at the types of accommodations they provide and the frequency with which they accommodate different groups of workers. Even if the last thing an employer intends to do is discriminate against pregnant women, the numbers might appear to tell a different tale in court. For example, the Court, in looking at all the ways in which UPS was accommodating to its other employees, asked, “[W]hy, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”
A Note on Off-the-Job Injuries Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
While the details of this case seem to imply that employers do not have to accommodate employees with off-the-job injuries, employers should be aware that after the claim in this case originated, Congress expanded the definition of “disability” under the ADA. Congress clarified that “physical or mental impairment[s] that substantially limi[t]” an individual’s ability to lift, stand, or bend are ADA-covered disabilities. Thus, employers should be aware that under current regulations, the EEOC has interpreted the ADA to require employers to accommodate employees whose temporary lifting restrictions originate off the job. See 29 CFR pt. 1630, App., §1630.2(j)(1)(ix).