The U.S. Supreme Court revived a pregnant employee’s discrimination claim against UPS, ruling that the employer’s policy of providing light-duty work only to employees meeting certain specifications (but not necessarily pregnant employees) may violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).
Peggy Young’s doctor restricted her to lifting no more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. As a UPS driver, however, her job required that she be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds.
UPS did have several reserved “light-duty” jobs that could have accommodated Young’s restriction but by internal policy, these jobs were limited to three classes of employees:
- Those injured on the job,
- Those with disabilities as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and
- Those who have lost their certification to drive commercial motor vehicles.
Since Young did not fall within any of these categories, UPS denied her a light duty position, leading her to sue UPS for violating the PDA. UPS responded that its policy was “pregnancy-blind” in that the company’s limits on accommodation applied to everyone and did not single out pregnant workers for less favorable treatment.
The trial court granted UPS’s motion for dismissal and the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.
EEOC Issues Guidance Advocating Reversal
We reported in July 2014, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued Enforcement Guidance advocating that policies limiting light duty to workers injured on the job and/or to employees with disabilities under the ADA violate the PDA. The Guidance contends that such policies ignore the PDA’s clear admonition that pregnant workers must be treated the same as non-pregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work. Therefore, pregnant employees must be accommodated in the same manner as non-pregnant employees.
As a result, the case became a battle of two extremes – the EEOC Guidance contending that pregnant employees must always be accommodated like other disabled employees, and UPS’s “pregnancy blind” policy that essentially excludes pregnant employees from such accommodations. After all, the ADA excludes pregnancy from the definition of disability and it is highly unlikely that an employee would become pregnant on the job.
Supreme Court Forges Middle Ground
As is often the case, the U.S. Supreme Court took the middle ground in ruling that a “pregnancy-blind” policy may violate the PDA where a plaintiff can show that the policy “impose[s] a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden . . . .” According to the Court, a plaintiff can make such a showing where she can show that “the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”
The Court rejected Young’s (and EEOC’s) argument, expressing doubt that the PDA was intended to “grant pregnant workers an unconditional most-favored-nation status.” In fact, they rejected outright the idea that the PDA requires pregnant employees to be treated the same as other people.
However, the Court also rebuffed UPS’s position that so-called “pregnancy-blind” policies are immune from PDA scrutiny. The Court explained that an employee could still claim that denial of an accommodation constituted discriminatory treatment under the PDA, requiring that the employer defend with “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying the accommodation. The Court made it very clear that such reasons must be more than simple claims that the accommodations would be expensive or less convenient. For this reason, the Court suggested that a pregnant employee could prevail by showing that “the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”
The Court remanded the case back to the lower court to determine whether Young came forward with sufficient evidence that UPS’s policy violated the PDA.
The Court’s decision can be viewed as a win for both sides. On the one hand, employers can no longer rely on “pregnancy-neutral” policies to avoid liability under the PDA. On the other, the EEOC’s position that all such policies violate the PDA must go back to the drawing board.
While this case is significant generally, Minnesota employers are less affected by it for two reasons: (1) the Minnesota Human Rights Act has required accommodation of pregnancy for many years; and (2) the recently enacted Women’s Economic Security Act extended that protection to require certain accommodations even in the absence of a doctor’s note.