BREAKING! U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Important Pregnancy Discrimination Case

BY:  TIMOTHY C. HAUGHEE & RACHEL D. GEBAIDE

MARCH 27, 2015

Employers should take note of this week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding workplace accommodations to pregnant employees. The question presented was whether the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) requires employers to offer workplace accommodations to pregnant employees to the same extent the employer offers accommodations to non-pregnant employees. The Court’s answer: Maybe yes, maybe no.

On the one hand, the Court’s decision gives employers a framework for determining whether they must offer such accommodations. On the other hand, because the Court did not render a clear rule regarding this type of potential pregnancy discrimination case, employers should exercise caution when making accommodation decisions that affect pregnant employees.

In Young v. UPS, the plaintiff, Peggy Young, a former UPS delivery driver, became pregnant during her employment with UPS and was told by her doctors that she could not lift packages weighing more than a certain weight during her pregnancy, even though UPS had a policy requiring its delivery drivers to be able to lift packages far exceeding that weight restriction. Consequently, UPS informed Young that she would be placed on an unpaid leave during her pregnancy because she was unable to lift the required weight.

However, UPS had previously accommodated other workers by placing them on paid light duty assignments if they had been injured on the job, lost their driver’s license, been involved in an automobile accident, and the like. UPS did not offer Young the same accommodation. As a result of the unpaid leave, Young was unable to pay her health insurance premiums, and she lost her insurance coverage. Young sued UPS, claiming that the company discriminated against her in violation of the PDA.

After losing to UPS at the appellate level, Young appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that a pregnant worker can show – on an initial basis – that her employer unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy by demonstrating: (1) that she is a pregnant worker, (2) that she sought an accommodation from her employer as it relates to her pregnancy, (3) that the employer did not accommodate her, and (4) that the employer accommodated others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

At that point in the case, it is up to the employer to justify its refusal to accommodate the pregnant worker based on one or more “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons. The employer’s reason, however, normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those employees whom the employer accommodates.

If the employer can justify its decision, the pregnant worker has an opportunity to show that the employee’s reasoning was in fact pretextual. In doing so, the pregnant worker may provide evidence that (i) the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and (ii) the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden but instead give rise to an inference of pregnancy discrimination. The evidence can include facts showing that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

Consequently, the Court’s decision in Young provides some additional guidance for employers to use in making accommodation decisions with respect to its pregnant workers. However, because the Court’s framework discussed above does not provide employers with a clear rule, employers should exercise caution when making accommodation decisions that affect pregnant employees.

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