Supreme Court Decides Important Pregnancy Discrimination Act Case

By: Megan J. Muoio, April 7 2015

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., a case challenging the interpretation and applicability of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and that has drawn national attention. Young was a part-time driver for UPS, which requires that its drivers lift up to 70 pounds. After Young became pregnant, her doctor advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds. UPS told Young that she could not work under a lifting restriction. However, UPS had a policy to accommodate workers who were injured on the job, had disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or who lost their Department of Transportation certifications. Young brought suit under the PDA and the ADA in the Federal District Court for the District of Maryland. She argued that UPS discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy because it provided light-duty assignments for injured workers and other non-pregnant employees but did not provide her with any such accommodation. UPS argued that, since Young was not injured, disabled, or de-certified by the Department of Transportation, she was not eligible for the accommodation and was therefore treated the same as all “other persons.”

The PDA is a subsection of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which extends Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination to discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or other related conditions. A key provision of the PDA requires that employers treat pregnant women “the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” The Court’s review and decision focused on this second provision.

The District Court granted UPS summary judgment and concluded that Young did not meet her initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, and Young appealed to the Supreme Court. Before the Supreme Court, the parties argued for two different interpretations of the key provision of the PDA. First, Young argued that women should receive the same accommodation when they are pregnant and cannot perform their jobs as any other worker would receive for any other condition that impairs their ability to work. This broad standard would permit pregnant employee plaintiffs to easily satisfy their initial burden under the PDA. It is also the standard adopted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its recently-published guidelines. UPS, in contrast, argued for a much narrower interpretation of the second provision of the PDA, which would require a case to proceed only if the pregnant employee could demonstrate that the employer had a policy that singled pregnant workers out for disfavored treatment.

The Court, in a 6-3 opinion, rejected both of the interpretations put forward by Young and UPS. Instead, the Court created a hybrid remedy that would take into consideration Congress’s intent to protect pregnant workers in way that goes above and beyond the basic protections against sex discrimination provided for in Title VII but would also take into consideration employers who have reasonable, non-pretextual reasons for denying accommodations to pregnant employees.

Under the Court’s framework, a pregnant employee must first demonstrate that she is in the protected group (that she can become pregnant), that she asked her employer for an accommodation when she could not fulfill her normal job, that her employer refused to provide an accommodation, and that the employer actually provided an accommodation for others who are just as unable to do their work temporarily. If the employee is able to satisfy those requirements, the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate that its policy has a neutral business rationale.  The burden then shifts back to the employee to demonstrate that the policy was a pretext for bias against pregnant employees, that the policy puts a “significant burden” on female employees, and the policy’s basis is “not sufficiently strong” to justify the burden.

The result of the Court’s newly-fashioned standard is that the Fourth Circuit’s decision affirming the dismissal of Young’s case on UPS’s motion for summary judgment will be vacated and Young’s case will proceed. Whether she can overcome her next burden – to demonstrate that UPS’s policy was pretextual – and will ultimately be successful will be determined after the case has been remanded for further proceedings in the District Court.

This is likely not the end of the Supreme Court’s evaluation of the issue of pregnancy discrimination, however. The Court specifically stated that it was not going to address whether pregnant employees could be protected under the ADA, which was expanded by Congress in 2008 to provide protection to workers with short-term disabilities. The Court did not take a position on the ADA issue in Young, but the EEOC has already gotten out ahead of the Court and stated that under its interpretation of the statute, it protects pregnant employees.


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