Supreme Court Cleans Up Confusion on Accommodations for Pregnant Employees

May 14, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., clarified when employers must provide accommodations to pregnant employees. As a result of the Court’s decision, pregnant employees are much more likely to be able to establish viable claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) if they are denied an accommodation.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the basis of sex. In 1978, Congress enacted the PDA, which made it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. The Supreme Court’s recent decision addressed whether an employer may be liable under the PDA if it refuses to provide light-duty assignments as an accommodation to pregnant employees but provides light duty to other workers.

Young’s Requested Accommodation

Peggy Young, a part-time driver for UPS, was required to lift more than 70 pounds as part of her job duties. After she became pregnant, her doctor advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds. UPS told Young she could not work while she had a lifting restriction, and she subsequently lost her medical coverage. She then filed suit in federal court, asserting that she was discriminated against and treated differently than other workers because she was pregnant.

Young relied on UPS’s policy of accommodating nonpregnant employees if they (1) were injured on the job; (2) lost their U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) certification; or (3) had a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She argued that UPS treated pregnant workers differently because it provided light duty for some workers but not for pregnant employees.

In response, UPS argued that since Young did not sustain an on-the-job injury, have a disability under the ADA, or lose her DOT certification, it did not discriminate against her based on her pregnancy. Instead, it treated her just like it treated all other similar workers. The trial court rejected Young’s argument and dismissed her lawsuit. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s decision and affirmed the dismissal. Young appealed to the Supreme Court.

Court’s Ruling

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts’ rulings and threw out the dismissal. The Court rejected both Young’s and UPS’s interpretations of the PDA and set forth a new framework employees can use to establish pregnancy discrimination. The Court held that a lawsuit should not be dismissed if an employee can demonstrate that (1) the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and (2) the employer’s legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for the policies are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden. To meet that standard, an employee must provide evidence that the employer accommodates non-pregnant workers but not pregnant workers.

In evaluating the strength of an employer’s justification for imposing a significant burden on pregnant employees, the Court held that the employer’s 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 . . . whom the employer accommodates.” The Court left open the question of what constitutes sufficient justification. The fact that an employer accommodates some employees tends to show that the employer does not have a good reason for not accommodating pregnant workers.

Bottom Line

If you handle accommodations for pregnant employees differently than accommodations for other workers, ensure you have a strong, legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the different standards. Under the strict test set forth in Young, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which an employer can have a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for treating pregnant workers differently than other employees. Accordingly, review your policies to ensure that light duty and other accommodations are provided equally to injured workers and pregnant employees.

This article was featured in the May 2015 issue of the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, which is edited by Axley Brynelson Attorney Gesina (Ena) M. Seiler and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.

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