Friday, March 27, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Revives Pregnancy Discrimination Case

In a 6-3 decision this week in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Young, a female delivery driver in a pregnancy discrimination case.  Young argued that UPS discriminated against her when it refused to lighten her work duties while she was pregnant. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether UPS’ reasons for having treated Young less favorably than it treated other non-pregnant employees were pretextual.

Young, who worked at a Maryland facility, became pregnant in 2006. She made her request for an accommodation after her doctor advised that she not be required to lift packages weighing more than 20 pounds.  UPS required drivers like Young to be able to lift up to 70 pounds.  UPS told Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction and sent her home.  In response, Young filed a federal lawsuit alleging that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related condition.  

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first clause of the Act clarified that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The second clause of the Act states 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 UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. UPS contended that the company offered accommodations for only three classes of workers: 1) those injured on the job, 2) those who lost their Department of Transportation driving certifications, and 3) those who have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 
Here, the plaintiff argued that the denial of her requested accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause.  As a result, the plaintiff may make our a prima facie case by showing, as in McDonnell Douglas, that she belongs to the protected class, she sought an accommodation, the employer did not accommodate her, and the employer did accommodate others who were “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for denying the plaintiff the accommodation. However, the reasons cannot consist simply of a claim by the employer that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those whom the employer accommodates.

If the employer articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. A plaintiff can show pretext by pointing to evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.  A plaintiff may do so by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, the majority found a genuine  dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation could not reasonably be distinguished from hers (workers with on-the-job injuries, those who had lost DOT certifications, and those with disabilities under the ADA). As a result, the case was sent back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for further review.

We note that statutory amendments made since Young filed her lawsuit may limit the future significance of this decision. In 2008, Congress expanded the definition of “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act to make clear that “physical or mental impairments” that “substantially limit” an individual’s ability to lift, stand or bend are covered disabilities within the meaning of the Act. As such, these amendments now apply to pregnant workers like Young who request a light lifting accommodation.