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March 30, 2015 Articles

SCOTUS Issues Ruling on Accommodation of Pregnant Employees

The Court rules on a case involving pregnant employees treated disparately from those with disabilities under the ADA.

By Charla Bizios Stevens

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 25, 2015, decided Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS), 575 U.S. ___ (2015).The issue in the case was whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to also provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” UPS offered a “light duty program” to workers who were injured on the job, were disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or had lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications. UPS, however, did not provide any such accommodations to pregnant employees who were not medically disabled. Young challenged the policy, arguing that the PDA requires an employer to provide pregnant employees light duty work if it provides similar work to other employees in other circumstances.

Young worked as a part-time driver for UPS where her responsibilities included pickup and delivery of packages. She had suffered several prior miscarriages so when she became pregnant, her physician limited her to lifting 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy and 10 pounds thereafter. Her normal job requirement was that she be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds herself and 150 pounds with assistance. UPS did not allow Young to work under this restriction, resulting in her staying out of work without pay for most of her pregnancy and ultimately losing her health-insurance benefits. Young filed suit, and UPS responded by saying that other employees who had been accommodated fell within one of the three categories referenced above; and since Young did not, there had been no discrimination.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals granted UPS’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that (1) the employer did not “regard” a pregnant employee as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and (2) employers are not required under the PDA to provide pregnant employees with light duty assignments as long as the employer treats pregnant employees the same as non-pregnant employees with respect to offering accommodations. That court further referred to UPS’s policy as “pregnancy blind,” showing no discriminatory animus toward pregnant workers.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the trial court to allow Young to pursue her claim. The Court, refusing to accept the interpretation of the PDA espoused by either party, concluded that because Young had alleged disparate treatment, she could seek to prove her claim using the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. In other words, Youngwould first need to make a prima facie showing of discrimination “by showing actions taken by the employer from which one can infer, if such actions remain unexplained, that it is more likely than not that such actions were based on a discriminatory criterion illegal under Title VII.” In her case, this meant showing that she belonged to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, but did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Thereafter, the burden would shift to UPS to justify its refusal to accommodate Young based on “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reasons. The fact that the accommodation might be expensive or inconvenient for the employer is not necessarily sufficient justification. Even once the employer presents its justifications, the employee has an opportunity to show that the reasons offered are pretext for discrimination.

The Court concluded that Young had created a sufficient factual issue regarding whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to non-pregnant employees in situations that could not be distinguished from hers to allow her to take her case to a jury.

— Charla Bizios Stevens, McLane, Manchester, NH

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