The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy and states that employers must treat pregnant women at work the same as “other persons” who are not pregnant but are similar in their ability or inability to work. 42 U.S.C §2000e(k).
Young, a UPS driver whose doctor told her not to lift over 20 pounds after she became pregnant, sued UPS because the company refused to put her on a modified light duty, while it provided such modified light-duty accommodations to employees who: (1) suffered on-the-job injuries; (2) required accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and (3) lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certification. Under the UPS light-duty policy, an employee who could not lift heavy packages because he suffered an on-the-job injury, would be given a light-duty assignment, while Young, who was similar in her inability to lift heavy packages, would not be. Young argued that this was discrimination based on pregnancy in that she was not treated the same as “other persons” similar in their inability to work.
Lower Courts’ Rulings:
The trial court and then the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Young’s argument finding that she was comparing herself to categories of employees who were not similar to her and that the UPS’s policy was “pregnancy-blind” in that it treated all employees who suffered an off-the-job injury that limited their working ability the same. Buying into the UPS’s argument, the Fourth Circuit explained that Young more closely resembled “an employee who injured his back while picking up his infant child or . . . an employee whose lifting limitation arose from her off-the-job work as a volunteer firefighter,” neither of whom would have been eligible for accommodation under UPS’s policy; so, UPS was really not treating Young any different from other employees.
US Supreme Court Ruling:
The Supreme Court did what it often does – it vacated the lower courts’ rulings, rejected both parties’ arguments, and came up with its own framework for determining whether an employer’s policy violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
The Court rejected Young’s argument that an employer who provides accommodations to some workers, must provide such accommodations to all pregnant employees, noting that pregnant women were not entitled to a “most favored nation status.” However, the Court also rejected UPS’s argument that its policy treated all pregnant and non-pregnant employees similarly, noting that UPS’s interpretation of the law would “fail to carry out an important congressional objective” of treating pregnancy disability like disabilities stemming from disease and accidents.
Instead, the Court held that an employee who asserts a disparate treatment claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, should have her claim analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis.In a nutshell, the analysis works like this:
1. A pregnant employee shows that the employer treats pregnant and non-pregnant employees differently in providing accommodations.
2. The employer must then justify its different treatment by establishing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the difference. While this burden traditionally set a comparatively low bar for employers to overcome, the Court cautioned that an employer’s reasoning that “it is more expensive or less convenient” to extend protection to pregnant women will not suffice.
3. Even if the employer establishes such a reasons, the employee may then show it’s just a pretext. While showing “pretext” traditionally has presented a comparatively high bar for plaintiffs to overcome, here the Court held that this burden may be met if the employee can point to 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 to justify the burden, but rather – when considered along with the burden imposed – give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”
After applying the above-described analysis to Young’s claim, the Supreme Court concluded that her claim should not have been dismissed by the lower courts and sent it back to the district court to analyze whether Ms. Young could prove her claim of discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
WHAT THE RULING MEANS FOR EMPLOYERS: The Court’s ruling makes is substantially easier for plaintiffs to succeed in pregnancy discrimination and accommodation claims, and employer’s policies that tend to negatively impact pregnant employees – particularly where there is evidence that the requested accommodations have been provided to non-pregnant employees – are likely to be scrutinized and may well be deemed to be unlawful.
Employers should review their policies and practices with the Court’s ruling in mind, and make whatever changes necessary to ensure appropriate accommodation of, and no adverse effect with respect to, pregnant employees. Employers should take all requests for pregnancy-related accommodations seriously and evaluate them thoroughly and consistently, so as to ensure compliance and help prevent claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Employers should pay special attention to employees’ pregnancy-related claims that might also qualify as disability accommodation requests. In 2008, Congress amended the ADA and expanded the definition of “disability” under the ADA to make clear that “physical or mental impairment[s] that substantially limi[t]” an individual’s ability to lift, stand, or bend are ADA-covered disabilities.” Thus, most pregnancy-related disabilities would now likely be protected by the ADA and subject to its reasonable accommodation requirements.
WHAT THE RULING MEANS FOR EMPLOYEES: This case does not provide an affirmative right to pregnant workers to receive an accommodation. Thus, an employer who does not provide accommodations for any workers with a temporary disability are under no obligation to do so for pregnant workers.
However, according to the US Supreme Court’s ruling, if an employer provides accommodations to certain employees, but refuses to accommodate pregnant employees, a pregnant employee might have a claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Similarly, if an employer treats pregnant employees differently from non-pregnant employees in the workplace, a pregnant worker might have a claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Leiza represents both employers and employees in handling pregnancy accommodation and pregnancy discrimination claims. If you need help in this area, contact Leiza Dolghih for a consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@GodwinLewis.com or (214) 939-4458.