SCOTUS Provides Clarity for Courts Analyzing Lawsuits Brought Under Pregnancy Discrimination Act
Last March, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in Young v. UPS that clarified the framework for courts to analyze discrimination lawsuits based upon the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and expanded the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s definition of sex discrimination to include pregnancy, childbirth, and other related medical conditions.
According to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 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 issue before the Court in Young v. UPS was whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires an employer to provide the same work accommodations to an employee with pregnancy-related work limitations as to employees with similar, but non-pregnancy related, work limitations.
The Plaintiff, Peggy Young, worked as a part-time delivery driver for UPS. After she became pregnant, her doctor placed her on work restrictions, including a prohibition against lifting over 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. However, UPS required employees in Young’s capacity to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS informed Young she could not work while under the doctor-imposed lifting restriction, which resulted in Young staying at home, without pay, for most of her pregnancy and ultimately losing her employee medical coverage.
Young subsequently brought this lawsuit alleging, among other things, that UPS acted unlawfully when UPS did not accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restrictions. She further asserted that UPS accommodated other drivers who were similar in their inability to work. In response, UPS maintained that the employees it accommodated became disabled on the job, those who lost certification from the Department of Transportation, and those who suffered from disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Accordingly, UPS argued, it did not discriminate against Young based on her pregnancy because she did not fall within any of the above categories and she was treated just as all other relevant employees were treated.
The result of the Supreme Court’s holding has been described as a “compromise” and “kind of a hybrid remedy,” that “judges intentional bias on the one hand and harmful impact on women workers on the other.” See Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Fashioning a remedy for pregnancy bias, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 25, 2015, 5:28 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2015/03/opinion-analysis-fashioning-a-remedy-for-pregnancy-bias/.
The Young v. UPS decision articulated the framework (well-known to employment attorneys), known as the McDonnell-Douglas burden shifting analysis, for a court to analyze a claim of pregnancy discrimination. First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case (i.e. sufficient evidence to support her claim) of discrimination by showing that she is a member of a protected class (i.e. “affected by pregnancy”), she sought an accommodation from her employer, was denied the accommodation, but other employees similar in their ability or inability to work were not denied the accommodation.
Should a plaintiff establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination, the employer must establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for failing to accommodate the pregnant employee’s accommodation request. If the employer makes that showing the pregnant employee is given the opportunity to try and prove the employer’s ostensibly legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for failing to accommodate the pregnant employee was just a pretext for discrimination.