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Supreme Court Sides With Pregnant Employees

Posted on May 12, 2015
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The fist clause of the PDA provides that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination also applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” 42 U.S.C. §2000e(k).  The PDA’s second clause requires that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”  Id.  The Supreme Court addressed the PDA’s second clause on Wednesday in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

The issue came before the Supreme Court in the case of Peggy Young, a driver for United Parcel Service, Inc.  (“UPS”).  When Young became pregnant, her doctor advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds.  This restriction was at odds with her employer’s policy that required drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds.  UPS told Young that she could not work while under her doctor’s lifting restriction.  In response, Young filed her lawsuit, arguing she was being discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy because UPS refused to accommodate her pregnancy related lifting restriction.  Young argued that because UPS had a light-duty-for-injury policy that accommodates workers who are injured on the job, have disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), or who had their department of transportation certifications revoked, they had accommodated individuals whose disabilities created work restrictions similar to hers.

On summary judgment, the lower courts ruled in favor of UPS, finding that the other employees Young cited as being treated more favorably were too different to qualify as “similarly situated comparator[s]”.  The Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s decision, holding that “there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.  She should be allowed to go back to court to argue that the reason she was not accommodated was her pregnancy.”

Through its ruling, the Supreme Court set out how a female employee may prove disparate treatment under the PDA.  Using what’s referred to as the “McDonnell Douglas framework,” Justice Stephen Breyer lays out the new test: “A plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing, as in McDonnell Douglas, 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.’”  Once a female employee has made such a showing, the employer may show that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for denying the female employee her accommodation.  That reason cannot consist of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of employees that the employer accommodates.  Once the employer shows a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the employee may show that the employer’s policy imposes a significant burden on pregnant workers and that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is not strong enough to justify that burden, giving rise to the inference of intentional discrimination.

It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not find that Young suffered from discrimination, only that Young has the opportunity to plead her case.  The importance of Wednesday’s decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. is that female employees now have a framework for proving discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.