Supreme Court Articulates New Test for Some Pregnancy Discrimination Claims

Young v. United Parcel Service presents a dilemma most employers, including state and local governments, can relate to.  What should an employer do if a pregnant employee’s job requires that she lift an amount well above what her doctor has approved during pregnancy? 

The specific issue the Court had to decide in this case was whether an employer violated Title VII because it accommodated many but not all nonpregnancy-related disabilities but did not accommodate pregnancy-related disabilities.  Maybe, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision.

United Parcel Service (UPS) told driver Peggy Young that she could not work because of a pregnancy-related lifting restriction.  UPS accommodated workers injured on the job, those with Americans with Disabilities Act disabilities, and those who lost their Department of Transportation certification.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to prohibits discrimination because of pregnancy.  And its so-called second clause says that employers must 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.”

Young argued that if an employer accommodates some workers with disabilities it violates Title VII if pregnant workers who are similar in the ability to work do not receive the same accommodation even if still other non-pregnant workers do not receive accommodations.  The Court rejected this argument as granting “most-favored nations” status to pregnant women.  UPS argued that to determine whether the employer has violated Title VII courts should compare the accommodations an employer provides to pregnant women with those it provides to others within a facially neutral category (such as those with off-the-job injuries).  The Court rejected this argument because it was similar to the argument Congress rejected when it overturned General Electric v. Gilbert, holding that a disability plan that provided sick and accident benefits but excluded absences due to pregnancy did not violate Title VII. 

According to the Court, a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constitutes disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause must first, per McDonnell Douglas, show that she belongs to the 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.”  The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying her accommodation.  But those 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 whom the employer accommodates.  If the employer offers a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason, the plaintiff may show that the employer’s proffered reasons are in fact pretextual.   

The Court explained how a plaintiff may demonstrate employer pretext:  

We believe that the plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue 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 Court did not hold that Young won her case.  Rather it sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether UPS’ reasons for treating Young less favorably than some other nonpregnant women was pretextual.