Supreme Court Clarifies Pregnancy Discrimination Act Claims in Young v. UPS

On March 26, 2015,  the Supreme Court announced its decision in Young v. UPS, setting forth a new standard for how employees may prove a claim of pregnancy discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. ____ (2015).  In Young,  the Court faced the issue of how to interpret the second clause of the PDA, which states:

women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes…as other purposes not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.

Peggy Young, a pregnant employee, was denied a light duty job by UPS after being given a 20-pound lifting restriction by her doctor. Young contended that UPS accommodated non-pregnant drivers who had sustained work-related injuries.

The district court granted summary judgment in UPS’s favor, finding that the policies were “pregnancy-blind” and, therefore, nondiscriminatory. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. (After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, however, UPS enacted a new policy granting light duty to pregnant employees to the same extent as employees who require light duty for on-the-job injuries).

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer explained that the PDA did not “grant pregnant workers an unconditional most-favored-nation status.” In other words, the PDA does not require employers to offer benefits to pregnant employees that it would not provide to non-pregnant employees. On the other hand, an employer cannot “treat pregnancy less favorably than diseases or disabilities resulting in a similar inability to work.” So, what does the PDA require?

The Supreme Court ruled that an employee who sues her employer for pregnancy discrimination under the PDA must now show that her pregnancy “actually motivated the employer’s decision.” She may prove this using the familiar, three-step McDonnell Douglas framework.

First, the employee must show “[1] that she belongs to the protected class [i.e., is pregnant], [2] that she sought accommodation, [3] that the employer did not accommodate her, and [4] that the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” As to the fourth element, Justice Alito explained separately that “pregnant employees must be compared with employees performing the same or very similar jobs,” i.e., with “non-pregnant employees whose jobs involve the performance of the same or very similar tasks.”

The employer must then provide its justification. An employer is not liable if it proves that employees are given benefits or privileges “based on the employee’s tenure or position within the company” as part of a seniority system. See 42 U.S.C. § 2003-2(h). On the other hand, it is normally not sufficient for the employer “simply [to] claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those . . . whom the employer accommodates.”

Third, the employee may “provid[e] sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers,” and that the reason(s) offered by the employer is “not sufficiently strong to justify [its] burden,” such that there is an inference of intentional discrimination. In other words, the employee must “provid[e] evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”

In Peggy Young’s case, the Court did not decide whether her claims could survive summary judgment. Nevertheless, the Court suggested, she “can show that UPS accommodates most non-pregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.” Additionally, she could “add the fact that UPS has multiple policies that accommodate non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions” as circumstantial evidence of discrimination. The Court left it to the Fourth Circuit, on remand, to determine whether Young can get to a jury.

In dissent, Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Thomas and Kennedy) accused the majority of reading around what he said the “text and context most strongly suggest” the law intended. Justice Kennedy wrote a separate, short dissent to acknowledge that “pregnant employees continue to be disadvantaged . . . in the workplace” while praising Justice Scalia’s analysis.

Employers are well-advised to review their pregnancy accommodation policies (including being mindful of additional state law requirements in many jurisdictions) and light duty policies. It is still permissible to draw policy distinctions, even if they affect pregnant female employees, as long as they can be justified by legitimate business reasons above practical and/or economic convenience (e.g. honoring employee tenure/service with the company) without imposing a significant burden on pregnant employees that is not imposed on non-pregnant employees.


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