U.S. Supreme Court Reinstates Pregnant Worker’s Discrimination Case

In Young v. UPS, the United States Supreme Court reinstated a UPS worker’s pregnancy discrimination lawsuit under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, finding that both the District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had applied the wrong standard in upholding UPS’s light-duty-for-injury policy, under which the company refused a light-duty accommodation to a pregnant employee back in 2006. While the Court did not determine whether the employee suffered any actual discrimination, or whether UPS’s policy was impermissible under the PDA – those issues were remanded to the Fourth Circuit – the Court did adopt a modified version of the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas for analyzing pregnancy discrimination claims under the PDA. The Court’s decision in Young is also noteworthy in that it declined to give deference to the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance on pregnancy discrimination, which we have previously discussed, and, in fact, rejected the argument that the PDA creates “an unconditional favored nations status” for pregnant workers.

Factual Background

Peggy Young worked as a part-time driver for UPS, and her job duties included picking up and delivering packages. In 2006, Young became pregnant and her 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 thereafter. UPS, however, required its drivers to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds (and up to 150 pounds with assistance). After informing UPS of her lifting restriction, Young sought a transfer to a “light-duty” position pursuant to UPS’ light-duty-for-injury policy, which limited such assignments to employees who (1) had been injured on the job; (2) had lost their U.S. Department of Transportation certification; or (3) were disabled under the ADA. As Young did not qualify for a light-duty assignment for any of these reasons, she was forced to stay home without pay and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

Young later filed a lawsuit against UPS, claiming that it violated the PDA in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. The PDA states 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 . . . .” (Emphasis added). The key question in Young was whether, and in what circumstances, the PDA requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The District Court for the District of Maryland granted UPS’s motion for summary judgment and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that UPS’s light-duty-for-injury policy was “pregnancy neutral” as required by the PDA. The Fourth Circuit further found that Young could not show that “similarly-situated employees outside the protected class received more favorable treatment than Young.” For example, the court stated that Young was “different” from those workers who were disabled under the ADA because Young was not “disabled” and that her lifting limitation was only “temporary and not a significant restriction on her ability to perform major life activities.”

Supreme Court’s Decision – A New Framework for Failure to Accommodate Pregnancy Claims

The Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Fourth Circuit and returned the case to the appellate court. The Court held: “Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young [as required under a summary judgment motion], 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.” In so holding, the Court rejected both Young’s and UPS’s interpretation of the PDA. The majority first rejected Young’s contention that “as long as an employer provides one or two workers with an accommodation — say, those with particularly hazardous jobs, or those whose workplace presence is particularly needed, or those who have worked at the company for many years, or those who are over the age of 55 — then it must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers.” Significantly, however, the Court also rejected UPS’s position that as long as its light-duty rules were “pregnancy neutral,” UPS’s treatment of Young did not violate the PDA.

Having done so, the Court set forth a new burden-shifting framework for lower courts to apply in PDA cases. This framework first requires a plaintiff to make out a prima facie case by showing that (1) she belongs to the protected class; (2) she sought accommodation; (3) the employer did not accommodate her; and (4) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The employer may then present “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason(s) for denying the requested the accommodation. Importantly, however, the Court cautioned, “consistent with the Act’s basic objective, that reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (“similar in their ability or inability to work”) whom the employer accommodates.” However, if the employer can meet its burden at this stage, the plaintiff must then show that the employer’s proffered reason(s) are in fact pretexual.

Under this framework, the Court held that a plaintiff may avoid summary judgment by “providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, non-discriminatory’ reason(s) are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather — when considered along with the burden imposed —give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.” Here, the Court posited, Young could demonstrate that a significant burden exists by demonstrating that “UPS accommodates most non-pregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.” The Supreme Court left a final determination of this issue for the Fourth Circuit.

EEOC’s Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination

The decision in Young is also noteworthy because of the majority’s treatment of the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance on pregnancy discrimination. In its guidance— released only two short weeks after the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Young — the EEOC explicitly stated that “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).” Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer rejected the EEOC guidance on grounds of “timing, ‘consistency,’ and ‘thoroughness’ of ‘consideration,’” while pointing out that the guidance ran “contrary to the litigation position the Government previously took,” and that the EEOC “offered no coherent reading of the statute.” The Court itself commented that the EEOC issued the guidance “only after the Court had granted certiorari in this case.” Justice Breyer therefore concluded that “[w]ithout further explanation, we cannot rely significantly on the EEOC’s determination.”

Conclusion

While there remains much to be decided as a result of the Supreme Court remanding Young to the Fourth Circuit, and although the Supreme Court did not hold that an employer is automatically required to give pregnant workers the same accommodations it would offer to others with temporary disabilities, an employer should be prepared to justify its treatment of pregnant employees with legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for not accommodating their pregnancies. Likewise, although an employer’s obligations under the PDA remain somewhat unclear, companies should consider reviewing and, if necessary, revising their light duty and accommodation policies and practices in light of Young. In doing so, employers must also consider recently enacted state and municipal laws requiring specific and statutorily enumerated affirmative accommodations (such as job restructuring, temporary transfers, and leaves) for pregnant employees, and, importantly, the Americans With Disability Act’s expanded definition of disability-not at issue in Young-to cover temporary conditions. These developments may require changes to an employer’s pregnancy leave policy even if the Court’s decision does not. We will continue to watch the Young case closely and report on any developments.

For answers to any questions regarding this blog or with regard to accommodations for pregnant workers generally, please feel free to contact an attorney in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

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