United States: Supreme Court Crafts Modified Mcdonnell Douglas Analysis To Handle Pregnancy Discrimination Claims

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a long-awaited decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., wherein the Court vacated the Fourth Circuit's decision to affirm UPS's successful motion for summary judgment.  The plaintiff, Peggy Young, had worked as a part-time driver for United Parcel Service ("UPS").  Part of her job required her to be able to lift packages of up to 70 pounds.  After becoming pregnant in 2006, however, Young's doctor advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds.  UPS maintained a light duty policy (the "Policy") which provided accommodations to employees who suffered on-the-job injuries or had disabilities covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  Young requested an accommodation under the Policy for her lifting restriction, but UPS refused, causing Young to stay home for most of her pregnancy without pay.  Young eventually filed a discrimination lawsuit, relying on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA"), an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, ("Title VII"), claiming that UPS failed to accommodate the lifting restriction stemming from her pregnancy while still "accommodat[ing] other drivers who were similar in their . . . inability to work."

The PDA added language to Title VII to prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy, and the language at the center of the Young decision is the language in the PDA which states:  "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."  42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k) (emphasis added).  Young argued that the PDA required UPS to accommodate her lifting restriction under the Policy.  UPS argued that these other drivers were disabled, lost their certifications with the Department of Transportation, or were covered by the ADA, thus bringing them within the protection of the Policy.  Since Young did not fit in any of these categories, UPS argued, it did not discriminate against her because of her pregnancy by failing to accommodate her under the Policy.  These competing interpretations required the Court to address how the PDA's "other persons" provision applies in "the context of an employer's policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with nonpregnancy-related disabilities."

The Court rejected both arguments and, instead, held that the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework must be applied to Young's claims while revising the pretext portion of the analysis.  As the Court explained, under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff bringing a failure to accommodate type of claim under the PDA   must establish i) that she is in the protected group; ii) that she asked to be accommodated; iii) that her employer failed to accommodate her; and iv) that her employer did provide a similar accommodation to other, non-pregnant employees who were "similar in their ability or inability to work."  The burden then shifts to the defendant-employer to show a legitimate business reason behind the workplace policy.  The burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to show the claimed business reason was only a pretext for the discriminatory treatment.

This is where the burden-shifting analysis usually ends.  The Supreme Court's decision in Young is significant, however, because it expanded the pretext analysis.  Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, explained that plaintiffs such as Young are no longer required to show that the employer's policy rationale was intentionally biased.  Rather, the employee can satisfy her burden of showing pretext by demonstrating that the policy put a "significant burden" on pregnant employees, and that the employer's reasoning was not sufficient to justify that burden.  Decreasing the employee's pretext burden in this context may allow employees to successfully defend against a summary judgment motion even where the employer can show that it had even-handedly applied its facially non-biased employment policy.  The Court then remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit to reconsider UPS's summary judgment motion under this new standard.

While the Court's decision can be viewed as an important development for employers to consider, it is worth noting that the Court opted not to rely on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") 2014 Guidance, which stated that certain policies constituted automatic violations of the PDA.  As Justice Breyer explained, the EEOC's guidance "was inconsistent with positions for which the government has long advocated."  Moreover, the 2008 amendments to the ADA, as well as many recent state law amendments, have already expanded the right of pregnant employees to be reasonably accommodated.

Co-Author Brian DeShannon is a law school intern currently attending Brooklyn Law School.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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