In Young v. United Parcel Services, Inc., 2015 WL 1310745 (March 25, 2015), the Supreme Court set forth a new standard for determining whether an employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (Act) by failing to accommodate a pregnant employee. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions and requires employers to 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.”
Young, who had a 20-pound lifting restriction due to her pregnancy, claimed that United Parcel Services (UPS) violated the Act by refusing to accommodate her restriction with light duty given that it accommodated other drivers who had similar lifting restrictions with light duty. UPS, in turn, argued that because it provided light duty only to employees who suffered work-related injuries, were disabled and entitled to an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or had lost their Department of Transportation certifications, and because Young did not fall within any of those categories, it did not discriminate against Young on the basis of her pregnancy.
The lower courts ruled in favor of UPS but the Supreme Court reversed. Rather than adopting either party’s argument, however, the Court determined that a new test should be applied.
First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by showing that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Next, the employer can rebut the prima facie case by identifying a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Finally, if the employer meets its burden, the employee must show that the employer’s stated reasons are a pretext. The employee can meet this burden by showing that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s reasons for the policies are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden on the workers, thereby creating an inference of intentional discrimination.
Unfortunately, the Court did not determine whether Young satisfied these standards. Instead, while the Court found that Young established a prima facie case of discrimination, and UPS identified a non-discriminatory reason for its actions, the Court remanded the matter to the Fourth Circuit to determine whether Young had created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’ reasons for treating Young less favorably than other non-pregnant employees was pretextual, i.e., to determine whether UPS’ policies imposed a significant burden on Young and whether UPS’ argument that it could accommodate certain employees, but not pregnant women, was sufficiently strong to justify the burden.
The new standard the Court established in Young means employers cannot simply rely on facially-neutral policies that do not apply to pregnant employees to avoid requests for accommodation by pregnant employees. Instead, it appears that employers may need to prove that their reasons for not accommodating pregnant employees justify the burden that places on them. Among other actions, employers should review any policy that reserves positions, accommodations or benefits based on some category that does not include pregnancy and determine whether its reasons for the policy are sufficiently strong to outweigh the burden they may impose on pregnant employees. As in the UPS case, this would include policies that reserve light duty jobs for employees who have suffered work-related injuries along with any other polices that provide accommodations only for certain workers.