Ooh, Baby Love: The Supremes Rule in Favor of Pregnant Employee

For the first time in years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued an opinion on the scope of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).  In Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant worker could bring a claim of discrimination against her employer who treated her request for accommodation less favorably than non-pregnant workers who received accommodations for other reasons.

While the long-term impact of Young remains to be seen, lower courts already have started to apply the decision.  See, e.g., Pelkey v. Colo. Dep’t of Labor & Emp’t, No. 14-cv-02205, 2015 WL 1740453 (D. Colo. Apr. 14, 2015).  Further, as of January 1, 2015, Illinois law requires employers with one or more employees to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers.

By way of background, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits a covered employer from engaging in sex discrimination.  The PDA extends Title VII’s prohibition to discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.  The PDA also requires employers to “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.”  It appears now that UPS interpreted this requirement too narrowly by assuming that other persons whom UPS accommodated had to be similar in all ways but pregnancy in order for the policy to be discriminatory.

Young v. UPS arose from a pregnant employee’s request for “light duty” because she could not pick up heavy packages.  UPS required its drivers to be able to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds.  When Young, a part-time driver for UPS, became pregnant after several miscarriages, her doctor told her she should not lift more than 10-20 pounds.  UPS then told Young she could not work.  Young stayed at home without pay during her pregnancy, lost her employee medical coverage, and subsequently sued UPS for refusing to accommodate her.

UPS did offer accommodations, however, to employees who suffered from on-the-job injuries or permanent disabilities and to drivers who lost their certifications.  UPS argued that these “pregnancy-blind” policies only offered accommodations for neutral and legitimate business reasons and therefore did not discriminate based on pregnancy.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that Young could argue that UPS’s reason was pretextual.  In other words, Young could present evidence showing that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.  The Court also found that the lower court failed to consider why UPS could not accommodate pregnant employees when it accommodated so many others, the combined effects of these policies, and the strengths of UPS’s justifications for each.

Finally, while the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Young, it rejected the EEOC’s 2014 Enforcement Guidance on pregnancy discrimination.  In response, the EEOC has recently announced that it will be revising the Guidance.  Both employers and pregnant workers should be on the lookout for the updated Guidance in the near future.

In the meantime, employers may need to carefully review their policies for their combined effects on pregnant employees (e.g., equal employment opportunity, disability, accommodation, anti-discrimination, and leave-related policies) to make sure they are consistent with Young as well as Illinois law.

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