by Courtney Barksdale Perez and Stacey Cho
In Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a framework for analyzing claims brought by pregnant women who were denied accommodations in the workplace. 135 S. Ct. 1338, 1354 (2015). Young, a UPS driver, requested light duty on recommendation from her physician after she became pregnant. UPS denied Young’s request because she did not qualify for accommodations under its then-existing policy, which only accommodated those workers injured on the job, those with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and those who lost their commercial driver’s certification. Because Young fit none of those categories, she went on unpaid medical leave and sued UPS for discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
On appeal, Young argued that under the PDA, if an identified group of workers get lighter duty or easier assignments because they are temporarily disabled, the same opportunity should be available to workers whose doctors limit the kind of work they can do during pregnancy. UPS argued that the PDA simply defines sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination and that it does not prohibit denying accommodations to pregnant women under a pregnancy-neutral policy.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court rejected both interpretations, holding that Young’s interpretation was too broad and would grant pregnant workers a “most favored status” under the law, while UPS’s interpretation was too narrow and would eviscerate Congress’s intent in passing the Act. Instead, the Court held that UPS’s pregnancy-neutral policy was not per se impermissible, and laid out the elements required to establish a prima facie case: (1) the plaintiff belongs to a protected class; (2) she sought an accommodation; (3) the employer did not accommodate her; and (4) the employer accommodated others outside her protected class who were similar in their ability or inability to work. In other words, a plaintiff bringing a claim under the PDA must still prove in each instance that she was treated less favorably than others who were similar in their inability to work. To make this showing, the employee must demonstrate that her employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers, and that the employer has not raised a “sufficiently strong” reason to justify that burden. An employee may show that a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers without accommodating a large percentage of pregnant employees.
The Court also held that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework for disparate treatment discrimination under Title VII also applies to pregnancy accommodation claims brought under PDA. Once the plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the employer must establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the failure to accommodate. This reason must, however, be more than a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to accommodate pregnant women. If the employer offers a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the burden then shifts back to the employee to establish that the proffered reason is pretext for discrimination.
Applying this framework to the facts, the Court vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded Young’s case for further consideration as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation could not reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.
Although employers can take some comfort following this decision in knowing that pregnancy-neutral policies can withstand scrutiny if a plaintiff fails to meet her burden under the traditional McDonnell Douglas framework, it should be noted that when this case arose, the 2008 amendments to the ADA had not yet become effective. While pregnancy itself is a not a “disability” under the Act, the amendments require employers to accommodate pregnancy-related medical conditions that qualify as a “disability” under the Act. That most pregnancy-related conditions qualify as a “disability” under the ADA may account for the fact that while this case was still pending, UPS changed its policy to accommodate its pregnant workers.
This decision should serve as a reminder to employers that they cannot treat pregnant workers needing accommodations because they are pregnant or suffer from a pregnancy-related medical condition less favorably than other workers seeking accommodations. Employers should review their leave, disability, and accommodation policies to ensure that they are equally applied to pregnant and non-pregnant employees with work restrictions.