UPDATE: Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers Can Be Inferred

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Young v. UPS on March 25, 2015.

Photo by Duncan C (Flickr)

Editor’s Note: This article is an update on a December 2014 article, Working While Pregnant: What Accommodations Must Be Made for Pregnant Workers?

The U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Young v. United Parcel Service on March 25, 2015.  Appellant Peggy Young appealed to the Court to rule on application of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to her termination by UPS after she was placed on temporary lifting restrictions by her doctor during her 2006 pregnancy.

The specific issue the Supreme Court addressed was whether the nature of UPS’s policy and the way in which it burdened pregnant women showed that UPS had engaged in intentional discrimination.  In this case, the Court specifically noted that to establish evidence of intentional discrimination, Young relied on UPS’s Capital Division Manager’s statement that she was too much of a liability and should not come back until she was not pregnant.  Young made out her prima facie case for discrimination under McDonnell Douglas by showing evidence that UPS would accommodate workers injured on the job, workers suffering from ADA disabilities, and those who had lost their Department of Transportation certificates, but not pregnant workers.

The Court objected to Young’s interpretation of the statute because it would have the statute grant pregnant workers a “most favored” status.  The Court could not accept that if the employer provides one or two workers with an accommodation, then it must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers regardless of the nature of their job, or any other criteria.  The Court stated that Congress likely did not intend to grant pregnant workers a most favored status that is not conditioned upon other factors.

Employers are permitted, based on disparate-treatment law, to implement policies not intended to harm members of a protected class, even if the policies do harm those protected class members so long as the employer can establish “a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual reason for doing so.”  The Court here interpreted this allowance as also applying to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

However, the Court would not accept UPS’s interpretation of the statute that pregnancy discrimination is simply included in the definition of sex discrimination because it in a way renders that portion of the statute void.  The Court stated that the second clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, at issue here, was intended to show how discrimination against pregnancy is to be remedied, not just simply add to the definition of sex discrimination that is prohibited by Title VII.

The Court chose not to accept either argument or interpretation of the statute offered by the parties involved. Instead, the Court ruled that a pregnant worker who wishes to show disparate treatment through indirect evidence of discrimination may do so by establishing a prima facie case for discrimination through the McDonnell Douglas framework.  A plaintiff may establish the prima facie case by showing the employer’s actions are based on illegal discrimination, if the actions are unexplained.  Once the prima facie case is established, the employer is permitted to provide a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for denying the accommodation to the employee.  If the employer does this, to reach a jury, the employee may show that the employer’s reason is pretext by, for instance, showing that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant worker, and that the reason given by the employer is not strong enough to justify the burden, which in turn gives rise to an inference of intentional discrimination against the pregnant worker.

For Young in particular, the Court explained that she must show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant workers who have lifting limitations while failing to accommodate pregnant workers with lifting limitations, in addition to the fact that UPS has multiple polices that accommodate nonpregnant workers with lifting restrictions.  This would be strong enough evidence for a jury to infer intentional discrimination and would allow Young to survive a motion for summary judgment.

Due to this reasoning, the Court vacated the decision granting of UPS’s motion for summary judgment.  The Court found that Young could present sufficient evidence that would allow jury to find an inference of intentional discrimination, which is all that is necessary for a plaintiff to survive a motion for summary judgment.

The Court specifically limited its interpretation of establishment of an inference of intentional discrimination to Pregnancy Discrimination Act cases.  This interpretation will not necessarily allow for more pregnancy discrimination cases to be brought, but instead ceases the battle of statutory interpretation like that in this case.  The arguments made by UPS, that the second section of the Act simply includes pregnancy discrimination into the definition of sexual discrimination that is not permitted by Title VII, is not valid for Pregnancy Discrimination Act cases.  Similarly, the arguments made by Young, that the second section of the Act allows for a most preferred status for pregnant workers to the extent that if an accommodation is made for a worker with a limitation or disability, that same accommodation must be made for pregnant workers, is not valid for Pregnancy Discrimination Act cases.  These clarifications allow for better guidance for employers on their polices regarding the Act, and employees on their rights under the Act.

The Supreme Court noted that in 2008, after the time of Young’s pregnancy, Congress expanded the definition of “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act to include “physical or mental impairment[s] that substantially limi[t]” an individual’s ability to lift, stand, or bend are covered by the ADA.  While the Court did not consider this ruling in Young’s case, it did note that the EEOC has interpreted this amendment to expand the definition to include those employees whose temporary lifting restrictions originate off the job.

It is difficult to say whether this new definition of what is considered a disability would have affected Young’s case.  Rather, the implications of the new definition do have significance for employer’s policies and rights employees have when pregnant.  The lifting restriction Young had could have been covered under the new definition of disability, since her physical impairment, or being pregnant, caused her to have a substantial limitation in her ability to lift a certain amount.  In cases regarding pregnancy discrimination, depending on the requested accommodation, it is likely workers could bring actions under the ADA or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act – or both.

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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