United States: "Spacious Accommodations": Supreme Court Breaks New Ground In Pregnancy Discrimination Case

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, revived a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by Peggy Young against United Parcel Service ("UPS"). The decision vacated the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that Young could not make a case for discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA") and sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit for further proceedings. The decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, can potentially alter the landscape on how employers handle pregnancy accommodations in the future.

Young worked as a part-time driver for UPS. Her job responsibilities included pickup and delivery of packages that had arrived by air carrier the previous night. In 2006, she became pregnant, and her doctor prohibited her from lifting more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS required drivers like Young to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds (and up to 150 pounds with assistance). UPS refused to give Young lighter duties to accommodate her and placed her on unpaid leave.

Young sued UPS in Maryland federal court, arguing that UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. She claimed she was treated differently than other drivers similar in their inability to work because, among other things, UPS accommodated: (1) workers injured on the job; (2) those suffering from disabilities under the American with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and (4) those who had lost their Department of Transportation ("DOT") certifications. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS, finding in part that Young could identify no similarly situated comparator who received more favorable treatment than she did. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that by limiting accommodations to those employees injured on the job, disabled as defined under the ADA, and stripped of their DOT certification, UPS had crafted a pregnancy-blind policy, and thus had complied with the PDA's requirements.

In vacating the Fourth Circuit's decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Young that the evidence she presented was sufficient to allow her to take her case to a jury. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, stated, "[T]here is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young's." Justice Breyer further stated that while an employer like UPS can rely on legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons to justify its refusal to accommodate Young, "a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (similar in their ability or inability to work) whom the employer accommodates" is not such a reason. Finally, even if UPS were to provide a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its refusal to accommodate Young, Justice Breyer explained, Young may still be able to prove to a jury that UPS's policies of accommodating a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers created a significant burden on pregnant workers, giving rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy, wrote that "[i]f a pregnant woman is denied an accommodation under a policy that does not discriminate against pregnancy, she has been 'treated the same' as everyone else" (emphasis in the original).

Post-Young, employers should be mindful as to how they handle accommodation requests from pregnant employees in comparison to accommodations given to injured workers facing similar restrictions. Employers should revisit any policies that offer accommodations to groups of nonpregnant employees but fail to provide accommodations to pregnant employees, and ensure that those policies are in accordance with the Supreme Court's decision. Employers should also be mindful that, according to the Supreme Court, expense or inconvenience are not good reasons to keep pregnant women out of a category of employees, similar in their ability or inability to work, for whom the employer provides accommodations.

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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