June 17, 2015 Practice Points

SCOTUS Issues Ruling on Pregnancy-Discrimination Case

The Court gives the Pregnancy Discrimination Act more bite than before.

By Aleem A. Dhalla

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling inYoung v. United Parcel Service, Inc.(UPS), a case involving the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The PDA is included as part of Title VII and consists of two clauses. The first clause, not at issue here, states that the “terms ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” This opinion addressed the second clause, which states that “women affected by pregnancy… 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.”

In Young v. UPS, the plaintiff was a UPS driver, responsible for pickup and delivery of air packages, generally, but not always, under 20 pounds. After multiple miscarriages, the plaintiff became pregnant and her doctor imposed activity restrictions, limiting her to lifting no more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and no more than 10 pounds thereafter. However, UPS allegedly continued to require Young to lift up to 70 pounds for her position and told her she could not work with the restriction.

At that time, UPS made accommodations for three categories of employees: those injured on the job, those who had lost their Department of Transportation Certification and those with an ADA covered disability. Pregnancy-related conditions did not (at the time) fall into any of the three categories. Because she did not fit into one of UPS’s categories, Young was forced to stop working to comply with her doctor’s restrictions and lost her employee medical coverage. Accordingly, Young brought a disparate-treatment claim under Title VII for pregnancy discrimination for refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related restriction.

The parties’ arguments centered on the meaning of the second clause of the PDA. Young argued that the PDA “requires an employer to provide the same accommodations to workplace disabilities caused by pregnancy that it provides to workplace disabilities that have other causes but have a similar effect on the ability to work.” UPS, on the other hand, argued the provision did little more than further define and clarify that sex discrimination includes pregnancy discrimination.

The Court was not satisfied with either definition. As to Young’s reading, the Court found that it required too broad a reading of the provision. The Court reasoned that this interpretation would grant pregnant workers a “most-favored-nation” status, meaning that if a company provided accommodations to a few workers, for example those in particularly hazardous jobs, the company would then be required to provide similar accommodations to pregnant workers with comparable physical limitations. The Court concluded that this could not have been Congress’s intent when it passed the PDA. The Court also rejected UPS’s reading of the provision (with which the dissent agreed). The Court recognized that Congress, in passing the PDA, intended to overturn the Court’s holding in General Electric Co. v. Gilbert. And UPS’s narrow reading of the PDA would not accomplish Congress’s objective.

The Court instead held that a plaintiff alleging disparate treatment under the PDA may use the traditional McDonnell Douglas test as indirect proof of discriminatory intent, except with a twist. To make out a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff must show “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 in ability to work.’” The employer may then present a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for denying her the accommodation. The employee then may show that the proffered reason is merely pretextual.

The twist added by Young v. UPS, is that the employee may show that her employer’s reason (usually an accommodation policy) significantly burdens the pregnant employee. The employee can create a genuine issue of material fact here “by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”

Notably, the Court refused to defer to the July 2014 EEOC guidelines on the issue, which stated “an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries.” However, while not a complete victory for plaintiffs, the Court’s ruling in Young v. UPS does give the Pregnancy Discrimination Act more bite than before.

Aleem A. Dhalla, Summer Associate, Snell & Wilmer, Las Vegas, NV

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