Young v. UPS, The Latest From the Supreme Court on Pregnancy Discrimination
By: Mark Volcheck, Esquire
The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifies that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The Act’s second clause specifies that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy…the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” At issue before the United States Supreme Court in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S.___(2015), was how this second clause applies in the context of an employer’s policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with non-pregnancy-related disabilities. By a holding that rejected both the theories of the employee and the employer, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Fourth Circuit which had dismissed the employee’s lawsuit, and remanded the case with instructions that the employee be given an opportunity to prove that UPS discriminated against her by denying her an accommodation that it had made available to other employees with work restrictions.
The plaintiff in the case, Peggy Young, worked as a part-time driver for UPS. Her duties included picking up and delivering packages. After several miscarriages, she became pregnant and was ordered by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. Since UPS required workers in Young’s position to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds, she was told that she could not work with this restriction. As a result, Young was placed on unpaid leave and eventually lost her medical coverage.
Young then brought suit against UPS alleging that it acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. Young argued that there were other workers who were similar in their inability to work who received accommodations. These employees included drivers who had become disabled on the job, those who had lost their DOT certifications, and those who suffered from disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. UPS argued essentially that it did not discriminate against her, as she was treated the same as all other employees who did not receive accommodation and were not included in those categories. The District Court granted UPS summary judgment, concluding that Young did not make out a prima facie case of discrimination for reason that her condition was too different from the accommodated categories to be considered “similarly situated.” The Fourth Circuit affirmed.
While the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case by a 6-3 vote, it rejected Young’s claim that as long as an employer accommodates only a subset of workers with disabling conditions, pregnant workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work must receive the same treatment even if still other non-pregnant workers do not receive accommodations. The Court expressed that such a reading gives pregnant employees an unconditional “most-favored-nation” status undeserved under the Act. Likewise, the Court rejected UPS’ theory that the Act’s second clause does no more than define sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination. The Court found that this interpretation fails for reason that such is accomplished expressly by the first clause of the Act. The Court explained that the employer’s interpretation would essentially ignore the Act’s second clause. Further, the Court found that adopting the employer’s interpretation would fail to carry out a key objective of the Act – overturning previous Supreme Court precedent that had upheld against a Title VII challenge a company plan that provided non-occupational sickness and accident benefits to all employees but did not provide disability-benefit payments for any absence due to pregnancy.
The Court explained that the proper method for determining violations of the Act’s second clause involves a process of shifting burdens. A prima facie case is made by the pregnant employee showing that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others similar in their ability or inability to work. The employer may then justify its refusal to accommodate by relying on legitimate non-discriminatory reasons. If an employer offers apparently legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its actions, the employee may then show that such reasons are a pretext for bias. The Court explained that an employee can reach the jury on this question by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and that the employer’s legitimate non-discriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong. Facts going to pretext include, according to the Court, UPS accommodating most non-pregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with these limitations. Accordingly, this analysis at its end focuses on the impact of employer policies allowing for accommodation of non-pregnant employees.
By vacating judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion, the Court did not make a determination as to whether Young, in fact, created a genuine issue of material fact on the question of pretext to overcome summary judgment. However, it is clear that the Court’s expressed method for analyzing pregnancy discrimination cases results in pregnant employees having an easier case to make for accommodations than had been allowed by the Fourth Circuit.