On March 25, 2015, The Supreme Court of the United States held that a plaintiff can demonstrate a genuine dispute as to whether an employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) where her employer treats pregnant workers less favorably than its treats non-pregnant workers that are similar in their ability or inability to work.
Who is Peggy Young and Why Did She Sue UPS?
Peggy Young, the petitioner in this case, worked as a part-time driver for the respondent, United Parcel Service (UPS). Her job required her to be able to lift packages that weighed up to 70 pounds as well as packages that weighed 150 pounds with assistance. However, after she became pregnant in 2006, her doctor told her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds after that.
In response, UPS told Ms. Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. She then stayed home without pay during most of the time that she was pregnant and later lost her employee medical coverage. As a result, Ms. Young sued UPS in federal court after receiving a right to sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Ms. Young claimed that her co-workers were willing to help her lift heavy packages. She also said that UPS accommodated other drivers who were similar in their ability to work. For example, UPS (1) provided temporary alternative work assignments to employees unable to perform their normal work assignments due to an on the job injury, (2) made reasonable accommodations for those disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and (3) provided “inside” jobs for employees that had lost their Department of Transportation certifications because of a failed medical exam, a lost driver’s license, or their involvement in a motor vehicle accident.
The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS. It found that Ms. Young had failed to establish her prima facie case (a fact presumed to be true unless it is disproved) of discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
Title VII forbids discrimination against any individual with respect to employment because of such individual’s sex. In 1978, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by adding new language to Title VII’s definitions section. Under 42 U.S.C. §2000e(k), the first clause of the 1978 Act specified that the “term ‘because of sex’ . . . included . . . because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The second clause states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The Second Clause
In this case, the Supreme Court of the United States primarily based its analysis around the second clause. Ultimately, the Court looked at why Congress enacted the second clause. It noted that Congress enacted the second clause in order to overturn both the holding and the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision in General Electric Company v. Gilbert. In Gilbert, a company plan provided non-occupational sickness and accidents benefits to all employees without providing disability-benefits payments for any absence due to pregnancy. The Court held that the plan did not discriminate on the basis of sex because there was no risk from which men were protected and women were not. Furthermore, the Court believed that even though pregnancy is confined to women, it was not comparable to the diseases or disabilities that the plan covered.
Here, in Young, the Court reasoned that simply including pregnancy among Title VII’s protected traits would not overturn the ruling in Gilbert and would not respond to the Gilbert Court’s determination that an employer can treat pregnancy less favorable than disease or disabilities resulting in a similar inability to work. The Court also noted that “the first clause of the [Act] reflects Congress’ disapproval of the reasoning in Gilbert” by “adding pregnancy to the definition of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII.” Furthermore, the Court in Young reiterated that the second clause of the Act was intended to overrule the holding in Gilbert and to illustrate how discrimination against pregnancy is to be remedied.
How Can a Pregnant Worker Now Show Intentional Discrimination?
In Young, The Supreme Court held that a plaintiff who alleges that the denial of an accommodation constitutes disparate treatment (intentional discrimination) under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing:
- that she belongs to a 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.
Next, if the pregnant worker is able to establish a prima facie case, the employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for denying her accommodation. However, the Court cautioned that employers’ reasons generally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of other people that the employer accommodates. If the employer offers an apparently legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, the employee may then show that the employer’s reasons falsely hide their true discriminatory intentions.
Here, the Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party is entitled to summary judgment if there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Upon reviewing the record in the light most favorable to Ms. Young, the Court determined, unlike the Fourth Circuit, that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to employees whose inability to work was similar to Ms. Young’s (the fourth prong of the the test above). Thus, on remand, the Supreme Court instructed the Fourth Circuit to consider the combined effects of UPS’ policies as well as the strength of UPS’ justifications for each policy.
Why is This a Victory for Pregnant Workers?
The Supreme Court’s holding in Young is a win for women because it lowered the burden for pregnant workers and raised the burden for employers to overcome. Moving forward, it appears that it will be easier for plaintiffs to succeed in pregnancy discrimination and accommodation claims, or at least, get their cases to a jury. Furthermore, policies that negatively impact pregnant employees where there is evidence that the requested accommodations have been provided to non-pregnant workers and not pregnant workers, are likely to be considered unlawful.
In addition, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is not the only law that requires employers to accommodate pregnant workers. In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to require employers to provide necessary accommodations to pregnant workers with pregnancy-related conditions that meet the definition of “disability.” The 2008 amendment to the Act did not apply in this case because it was enacted after the case was filed. Moving forward, employers should review their policies and ensure that they are appropriately accommodating pregnant workers. Learn Your Rights 101.