The Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. yesterday. Vacating and remanding the Fourth Circuit’s decision, the Court concluded that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) “requires courts to consider the extent to which an employer’s policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats nonpregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work” and that there was a genuine dispute regarding “whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.” Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).
After becoming pregnant in 2006, Young’s doctor advised that she should not lift more than twenty pounds (and should not lift more than ten pounds once her pregnancy progressed to a certain stage). UPS, however, required its drivers to lift up to 70 pounds.
According to the applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement, UPS was required to provide temporary alternate work to employees injured on-the-job and “inside” positions to drivers who lost their Department of Transportation certifications for various reasons. UPS also provided accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Under UPS’s policies, a pregnant employee was ineligible for light duty work due solely to pregnancy-related limitations. UPS therefore concluded that Young was unable to fulfill the essential functions of her position and was ineligible for light duty work.
Young filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and thereafter filed a federal lawsuit. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS and the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit affirmed. Young appealed to the Supreme Court and the Court granted certiorari to address employer obligations under the PDA, specifically, whether employers that provide non-pregnant workers accommodations must accommodate pregnant workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Id.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
Congress passed the PDA in 1978. The PDA amended Title VII’s definition of sex discrimination to include discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). The PDA also provides that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work[.]” Id. Young dealt with the interpretation of the latter clause.
The Supreme Court’s Holding
In its decision, the Supreme Court assessed Young’s disparate-treatment discrimination claim and focused largely on the indirect method of proof under the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, burden-shifting framework.1
The Court, rejecting the divergent interpretations of the parties,2 held that “a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing, as in McDonnell Douglas, that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).
At the pretext stage, according to the Court, a plaintiff can reach the jury “by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ 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.” Id. “[E]vidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers” is sufficient to create an issue of fact regarding whether a significant burden exists. Id.
To support her prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, Young relied on evidence that UPS accommodated workers who lost their certifications, sustained on the job injuries, and suffered from disabilities under the ADA. She also argued that UPS had accommodated other individuals whose “disabilities . . . created work restrictions similar to hers.” Id. The Court concluded that Young’s evidence was sufficient to create a fact issue “as to the fourth prong of the McDonnell Douglas analysis” such that the lower courts erred in granting summary judgment. Id.
Although the Court refused to grant pregnant employees a “‘most-favored-nation’ status[,]” it nevertheless held that a plaintiff may be able to support a showing of pretext by contrasting the percentage of accommodations granted to pregnant employees with the percentage of accommodations granted to non-pregnant employees. Thus, while an employer is not automatically required to provide all pregnant workers the same accommodations it offers to others 100% of the time, employers should be prepared to justify any differences in their accommodation decisions, which may be difficult to do.
Employers should also keep the ADA in mind. In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that Congress amended the ADA to expand the definition of the term “disability” in 2008 (after Young’s pregnancy), which according to the Court, could impact the significance of its interpretation. Other laws, including, without limitation, state and local laws, may also apply to employer analyses in this context. For example, in 2014, the State of Minnesota adopted the Women’s Economic Security Act, which includes provisions related to pregnancy accommodations.
Employers can take the following steps to help stay in compliance with the various laws in the wake of this decision:
- Review policies related to light duty and reasonable accommodation requests to ensure they are in line with legitimate business needs and not based on cost and convenience.
- Examine accommodation requests granted and denied over the recent past, and on a going forward basis, to determine if pregnant women are being treated disparately.
- Train managers and HR professionals on the need for individualized inquires in granting or refusing requests for accommodation.
1 Under the burden-shifting framework, plaintiffs bear the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate “‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons” for the subject action (here, UPS’s denial of Young’s accommodation request). Id. If the employer is able to present such reasons, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate pretext.
2 The Court concluded that Young’s proposal “prove[d] too much” and improperly “grant[ed] pregnant workers a ‘most-favored-nation’ status” since under her reasoning, employers would be required to provide all pregnant employees accommodations similar to those provided to any others without regard to considerations like “the nature of their jobs, the employer’s need to keep them working, their ages, or any other criteria.” Id. The Court also declined to “rely significantly” on the EEOC’s July 2014 enforcement guidance related to pregnancy discrimination. Id.