Employment Law

Pregnancy Discrimination Law Evolving with Reversal by Supreme Court

Thomas Daugherty, Esq.By Thomas E. Daugherty, Esq.

The United States Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of a pregnancy bias case, in which the plaintiff claimed that her employer had denied her light-duty while she was pregnant, which unlawfully discriminated against her by failing to accommodate her pregnancy-related job restrictions.

In Young v. UPS, Inc., Peggy Young worked as a driver for United Parcel Services, Inc., (UPS), and was required to lift up to 70 pounds.  Due to her pregnancy, her doctor limited her to lifting only up to 20 pounds.  UPS informed Young that she could not work while under the lifting restriction.

Young brought a disparate-treatment lawsuit, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, included in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Disparate treatment cases seek to prove that adverse employment policy, practice or decision was based on a protected characteristic.  Plaintiffs can prove disparate treatment by showing through either direct or circumstantial evidence that they were treated adversely as compared to similarly situated employees because of the protected characteristic.  Under Title VII, pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions are protected characteristics.

Young sought to show that UPS accommodated workers with similar light-duty restrictions, employees that were injured on the job, had disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA), or had lost Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications. She argued that these policies discriminated against pregnant employees because UPS would not accommodate light-duty for similarly restricted pregnant workers. UPS countered that it had treated her as it treated all relevant persons because Young did not fall within the on-the-job injury, ADA, or DOT categories.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had affirmed summary judgment for UPS, which dismissed the lawsuit, finding that Young could not make a prima facie case for discrimination because the employees to which Young had compared herself were not similarly situated—they were too different.

Under the McDonnell Douglas framework of proving discrimination, a plaintiff can defeat summary judgment by providing “sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ 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. The plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”

 The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court’s dismissal, holding that Young had created a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from hers.  On remand the Fourth Circuit must determine whether Young also created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’ reasons for having treated Young less favorably than these other non-pregnant employees were pretextual.   “Ultimately, the court must determine whether the nature of the employer’s policy and the way in which it burdens pregnant women shows that the employer has engaged in intentional discrimination.”

Bottom Line for Employers

The Young v. UPS case is another step in the evolution of discrimination law.  As the courts continue to refine it, employers should review their policies and procedures relative to accommodations made for injured or disabled employees, and determine how those policies are applied to pregnant employees.  Consult with an employment attorney and evaluate whether your policies provide accommodation to a large percentage of non-pregnant workers with no accommodate for a large percentage of pregnant workers.  If so, it’s time to change those policies to deter disparate impact discrimination claims.  Notably, regardless of the eventual outcome of this case, as of January 1, 2015, pregnant UPS workers are now entitled to light duty.