In a case that garnered significant attention from employers prior to hearing, the U.S. Supreme Court created by a 6-3 vote a new approach for proving and defending against pregnancy discrimination and accommodation cases.
Peggy Young was a part-time driver for UPS, a job that required her to lift 70 pounds or more. After discovering that she was pregnant, Young presented UPS with a note from her doctor recommending that she not be required to lift more than 20 pounds, and asked UPS to permit her to work a light duty assignment. UPS denied her request, relying on a policy that provided for accommodations for only three classes of workers: those injured on the job, those who lost their Department of Transportation driving certification, and those who have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. UPS told Young that she was ineligible for an accommodation and placed her on an unpaid leave of absence during the remainder of her pregnancy.
In July 2007, Young sued, claiming that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA") in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related condition. The trial court granted summary judgment to the company on Young's claim, reasoning that there was no evidence of discriminatory animus, that Young was not similarly situated to the non-pregnant workers who were provided with accommodations under the UPS policy, that UPS in any case offered a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its disparate treatment, and that there was no genuine issue of fact to resolve as to whether that reason was pretextual. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 majority ruling written by Justice Stephen Breyer, vacated the lower courts' rulings and remanded Young's pregnancy claim. The Court did not rule that UPS's policy is inherently discriminatory, but instead held that there was a genuine factual dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to some employees whose situation could not reasonably be distinguished from Young's situation. The Court also directed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether Young had created a material fact issue for trial on the issue of whether UPS's reasons for treating her less favorably than these other non-pregnant employees were pretextual.
Under Title VII, an employer is barred from "discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to ... terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's ... sex." In response to the Supreme Court's decision in General Elec. Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976), the term "sex" was defined under the PDA to include "because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions." In addition, the PDA mandates equal treatment of women affected by pregnancy: "women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions 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 ...". It is the second clause of the PDA that garnered the attention of the parties and the Court.
In an interesting twist, the Supreme Court rejected both parties' suggested interpretations of this clause when reaching its decision. The Court rejected Young's position that the PDA "granted pregnant workers a 'most-favored-nation' status." On this point, the Court refused to accept Young's argument that "as long as an employer provides one or two workers with an accommodation—say, those with particularly hazardous jobs, or those whose workplace presence is particularly needed, or those who have worked at the company for many years, or those who are over the age of 55—then it must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers." On the other side of the argument, however, the Court also rejected UPS's reading of the PDA that as long as its light-duty rules were "pregnancy neutral," treating Young like anyone else was permissible.
Instead, the Court laid out a new test to evaluate cases alleging pregnancy discrimination. Relying on the guidance provided by the McDonnell Douglas framework, the Court held that a plaintiff alleging pregnancy discrimination on the basis of the denial of an accommodation may make out a prima facie case by showing that she belongs to a protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others "similar in their ability or inability to work."
In response to this prima facie showing, the employer can show it had "legitimate, non¬discriminatory reasons for denying her accommodation." Importantly, and without further direction, Justice Breyer writes, "consistent with the Act's basic objective, that reason normally cannot consist simply of 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."
Finally, the plaintiff may reach a jury by providing sufficient evidence that the employer's policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer's proffered reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather, when considered along with the burden imposed, give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.
How Does This Decision Impact Employers?
The Court's ultimate question – "Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?" – and subsequent ruling should provide insight for employers today. When reviewing policies, employers should consider this same question to ensure that pregnant workers have access to the same accommodations as workers with similar restrictions. In the wake of this decision, employers should take the following steps to help stay in compliance with various state (many state laws require accommodation of pregnancy-related disabilities) and federal laws (in addition to the PDA, the ADA and ADAAA may apply to accommodation requests):
- Review policies related to light duty and reasonable accommodation requests to ensure they are in line with legitimate business needs and not based on cost and convenience.
- Examine accommodation requests granted and denied over the recent past, and on a going-forward basis, to determine if pregnant women are being treated disparately.
- Train managers and HR professionals on the need for individualized inquires in granting or refusing requests for accommodation.
For More Information
For more information about this alert, please contact the authors, a member of Polsinelli's Labor and Employment practice, or your Polsinelli attorney.