U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Dismissal of UPS Employee’s Pregnancy Discrimination Case

By Rudman Winchell Attorney Matthew Cobb

 

On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a highly anticipated decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., establishing a new standard under the Pregnant Discrimination Act (“PDA”) for evaluating requests by pregnant employees for temporary lighter-duty work due to pregnancy.

The Plaintiff, Peggy Young, worked as a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (“UPS”). Her job duties included pickup and delivery of packages that had arrived overnight by air. In 2006, after she became pregnant, her doctor recommended that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS required employees in Ms. Young’s position to be able to lift packages up to 70 pounds, and told her that she could not work while under her lifting restrictions. As a result, she remained home without pay for most of her pregnancy and eventually lost her medical coverage.

She later brought a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that UPS violated the PDA in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restrictions. The PDA extends Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination to include discrimination based on pregnancy.   It further provides 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.”

Ms. Young maintained that UPS accommodated other delivery drivers who had restrictions on their ability to work; in other words, workers who were “similar in their . . . inability to work.”

UPS denied that it had discriminated against Ms. Young and explained that the “other” delivery drivers were (1) drivers who had become disabled on the job, (2) those who had lost their Department of Transportation (“DOT”) certifications, and (3) those who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). UPS argued that, since Ms. Young did not fall within any of those categories, it had not discriminated against her on the basis of pregnancy, rather, it had treated her just like all other persons similar to her.  

The district court granted UPS’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Ms. Young’s PDA claim, concluding that even when the evidence was viewed most favorably to Ms. Young, she could not establish that UPS discriminated against her. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court’s ruling. The Fourth Circuit concluded that UPS’s policy on its face did not discriminate against pregnant employees. Further, it determined that she could not show that other “similarly situated” workers received preferential treatment because (1) her inability to work did not arise from an on-the-job injury; (2) she was not unable to work due to a lack of proper certification; and (3) she was not disabled under the version of the ADA in effect at the time (prior to the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (“ADAAA”)) because her condition was temporary and did not significantly restrict her normal life activities.

The United States Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that the case should not have been dismissed. The Court’s analysis turned on the meaning of the second phrase in the PDA, 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.”

The Court explained that an employee alleging the denial of an accommodation in violation of this clause has the initial burden of showing the she belongs to the class of persons protected under the PDA, that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

If the employee makes this initial showing, the employer then has the burden of showing that its refusal to accommodate the employee was based on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, for example, application of a company policy to all employees regardless of pregnancy status.

An employee may then create an issue for a jury to decide at a trial if she produces evidence that shows the employer’s proffered reasons are pretextual (in other words, should not be believed). Importantly, the Court ruled that an employee “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, 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.” In short, a new balancing test has been created.

Because the Fourth Circuit had not used this analysis in considering the evidence Ms. Young submitted in support of her claim, the case was remanded to the Fourth Circuit for further evaluation under the burden-shifting framework described above.

Interestingly, the Court also noted that there may be new developments in pregnancy discrimination cases in the near future. It explained that with the enactment of the ADAAA in 2008, Congress expanded the definition of disability under the ADA to include impairments that substantially limit an individual’s ability to lift, stand, or bend. Without expressing an opinion on the matter, the Court observed that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) had interpreted this statutory change as requiring employers to accommodate employees whose temporary lifting restrictions originate off the job. However, the Court declined to interpret the significance of those new standards in the present case, which arose before they were enacted.

The Court’s decision is important for employers in that it established new precedent under the PDA that places some emphasis on the impact an employer’s otherwise neutral policies have on pregnant workers in resolving pregnancy discrimination claims. The Court also suggested that the amendments made to the ADA in 2008 may have changed the legal landscape with respect to how pregnant employees are to be accommodated on the job.

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