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Supreme Court Allows Employee to Claim Pregnancy Discrimination Based on Employers' Accommodations to Other Persons

    Client Alerts
  • March 27, 2015
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision reversing the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ position on employers’ obligations to accommodate employees’ pregnancy-related work restrictions. However, the court rejected both the employers’ and EEOC’s legal positions, instead adopting a middle ground that permits employers to demonstrate legitimate business reasons for denying pregnant employees’ work accommodations.

Young v. UPS, Inc. involved a UPS driver who was placed on lifting restrictions due to her pregnancy. She requested alternative duties during the pendency of her restrictions, but UPS declined this request, stating that such light duty was limited to situations involving workplace injuries, ADA accommodations or temporarily disqualified DOT drivers. She sued, alleging pregnancy discrimination. The Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment, concluding that the plaintiff had not shown that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy.

In her appeal, the plaintiff argued that if UPS made light duty available to any non-pregnant employee, it must open the program to pregnant employees. After the Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court decision, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines adopting this reasoning. UPS argued that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) only requires employers not to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy. It could therefore establish terms for its light duty program that restricted participation based on factors other than sex or pregnancy.

The Supreme Court rejected both of these legal constructions of the PDA. The Court said that the law does not establish “most-favored-nation” status for pregnant employees, requiring employers to provide accommodation of all pregnant employees if any non-pregnant employee receives such measures. It refused to defer to the EEOC guidelines, noting that they were adopted at the last minute, and are contrary to prior EEOC interpretations on this issue.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court also disagreed with UPS. It concluded that the PDA requires employers to do more than refrain from active discrimination against pregnant workers. The Court stated that plaintiffs claiming failure to accommodate pregnancy restrictions must use the established legal test for proving disparate treatment. If they can show that their exclusion from the light duty program results in a significant burden on pregnant employees, the employer must demonstrate legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for the exclusion of pregnant employees from the program. Most importantly, the Supreme Court noted that plaintiffs can meet their burden of proof by showing that the light duty program excludes a large percentage of non-pregnant workers, but covers more than a few non-pregnant workers. Additional cost or administrative burden alone will not serve as a justifiable reason for this different treatment.

How will this test operate in the workplace? Employers are not required to establish light duty programs or to assign pregnant employees to alternative positions if they decline to do so for other employees. For employers that do offer light duty programs, this decision incentivizes them to take one of two directions. First, employers can open their light duty programs to pregnant workers. The same legal reasoning could also apply to disabled employees without work-related injuries. Employers may take the opposite approach and limit their light duty programs to a very narrow subset of employees. For example, if the program is only open to certain key employees who suffer work-related injuries, a pregnant employee may not be able to demonstrate that she is adversely affected in comparison to the large majority of workers who never qualify for light duty under this scenario.

In the end, the Supreme Court refused to adopt a clear rule on employers’ obligations to provide accommodation of pregnancy restrictions under the PDA. The lack of clear guidance from the Court makes it more likely that pregnancy accommodation claims will be determined by juries and not during preliminary court proceedings. Both plaintiffs and employers will have their opportunity to explore the legal extent of pregnancy accommodation measures.