U.S. Supreme Court Revives Pregnancy Discrimination Act Claim

3/25/2015

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling overturning a lower court’s decision dismissing a woman’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) case and remanded the case for further proceedings. By overturning the Fourth Circuit’s decision to reject that UPS driver’s pregnancy discrimination claim today, the Supreme Court has resuscitated the question of whether, and in what circumstances, PDA requires employers who provide accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to also provide accommodations to pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

When she became pregnant, the former UPS driver, Peggy Young, was placed on a lifting restriction. Young’s request for light duty was denied by UPS however, because it only provided accommodations to three categories of workers: those who had been injured on the job, those who lost their Department of Transportation certification, and those who had a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. UPS explained that its policy was pregnancy neutral. Young sued UPS under a section of the PDA however, which requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Young claims that because UPS offered light duty accommodations to employees who were similarly situated (but not pregnant), it must offer her the same accommodation.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment to UPS after deciding that UPS’ decision to deny Young light duty work during her pregnancy turned on “gender neutral criteria” and that there was no direct evidence of discrimination on the basis of sex. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and found that UPS’ policy was facially neutral because accommodating some employees, but not others was “not direct evidence of pregnancy-based discrimination.”

On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court rejected the reasoning of the lower court with a 6-3 vote in Young’s favor. On behalf of the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the lower court is required to decide if UPS had “legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual justification for treating employees differently.”  Breyer added that there is a “genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.” Courts across the nation will now have to re-examine Young’s case with a more positive view of the pregnancy discrimination claim.

Regardless of the Fourth Circuit’s forthcoming ruling as to whether and to what extent an employer is legally required to accommodate pregnant employees under the PDA, employers should consider providing workplace accommodations to pregnant employees for a multitude of reasons. Importantly, since the Fourth Circuit’s decision – and even before the Supreme Court’s Opinion was issued today – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) updated guidance to employers clarifying that employers should accommodate women in Young’s situation. Even the Supreme Court recognized that in “2008, Congress 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.” While expressing no view regarding the recent statutory changes, the Supreme Court also recognized that as interpreted by the EEOC, the new statutory definition would require employers to accommodate employees whose temporary lifting restrictions originated off the job. Interestingly, UPS has changed its policy, and now says it will try to accommodate pregnant workers. Finally, employers must recognize that pregnancy discrimination claims are sure to abound as the topic has grabbed the national spotlight, and it will likely continue to do so for some time

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