Supreme Court Sets New Standard for Pregnancy Discrimination Claims

March 26, 2015 | By

In a 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court gave new life yesterday to former UPS driver Peggy Young’s claim of unlawful pregnancy discrimination when it vacated the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision affirming the dismissal of Ms. Young’s claim against her former employer.  The high court sent the case back to the court of appeals with the instruction that it should apply a new standard to determine whether or not Ms. Young has set forth a valid claim against UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA).

 Ms. Young was a part-time air mail driver for UPS when she became pregnant in 2006 after suffering several miscarriages.  Her doctor advised her that she should not lift anything over 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or anything more than 10 pounds thereafter.  Ms. Young informed UPS of her lifting restrictions and requested that she be placed in a light duty position for the remainder of her pregnancy because the company required its drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds without assistance.  However, UPS’s policy was to offer light duty positions only to drivers who: had become disabled on the job; had lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certification for reasons such as driving under the influence; or suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Because she did not fall within one of these categories, UPS refused Ms. Young’s request, and instead told her that she could not work due to her lifting restriction.  As a result, Ms. Young was out of work, without pay and health insurance coverage, for the remainder of her pregnancy.

Ms. Young sued UPS for unlawful pregnancy discrimination under the PDA, claiming that UPS treated her differently than other similarly situated drivers when it refused to accommodate her lifting restriction.  The PDA provides, in part, 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…”

Ms. Young argued that UPS violated the PDA when it provided light duty to other non-pregnant drivers with similar restrictions, but refused to accommodate her pregnancy-related restrictions.  UPS countered that the PDA does not require accommodations or special treatment for pregnant workers, and claimed that it had treated Ms. Young just as it would have treated other non-pregnant drivers who suffered an off-the-job injury.  Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, UPS voluntarily changed its policy on pregnancy accommodations on January 1, 2015, and now makes temporary light duty work available to pregnant workers with medically certified restrictions.

Siding with UPS, the district court dismissed Ms. Young’s claims, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.  On appeal, the Supreme Court rejected both Ms. Young’s and UPS’s interpretations of the PDA.  Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer refused to grant what it perceived to be Ms. Young’s request to give pregnant workers a “most-favored-nation” status, and said that employers who provide an accommodation to one or two workers do not have to provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers.

The Supreme Court instead established a new standard for the lower courts to apply when deciding pregnancy discrimination claims.  Under the standard set forth in Young, pregnant workers can make out a prima facie claim of disparate treatment discrimination under the PDA by showing that she is or was pregnant, that she sought an accommodation from her employer, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate other workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  Once the pregnant woman meets her burden, the employer must then articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for denying the requested accommodation.  According to the majority, this reason cannot simply be that it would be too expensive or inconvenient to accommodate pregnant workers in the same manner that it accommodates non-pregnant workers.

If the employer can articulate such a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the woman’s PDA claim may still succeed if she can show that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason(s) are not “sufficiently strong to justify the burden.”  Pregnant woman can do this, Justice Breyer wrote, by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers, but fails to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.  Because Ms. Young had provided evidence that UPS provided light duty work to a large group of employees, while denying it to pregnant employees, the Supreme Court sent Ms. Young’s case back to the Fourth Circuit.

Though the Supreme Court did not give any weight to the pregnancy discrimination guidance issued by the EEOC last summer – only two weeks after the Supreme Court decided to hear Ms. Young’s appeal – the EEOC’s guidance seems to set forth a similar standard.   According to the EEOC, an employer cannot deny light duty to a pregnant worker based on a policy that restricts the assignment of light duty work to employees with on-the-job injuries or ADA covered disabilities.  EEOC Chair Jenny Yang sees the Supreme Court’s decision as a “clear win for women and families across America.”

While the Supreme Court may have refused to be guided by the EEOC in deciding the Young case, employers should still expect the EEOC to follow its guidance in its investigation of pregnancy discrimination claims.  Moreover, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Young, employers should review their current accommodations and/or light duty policies to ensure that they are not unjustifiably treating pregnant workers less favorably than non-pregnant workers who have similar working restrictions.