U.S. Supreme Court Examines Pregnancy Discrimination Act


Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Young v. United Parcel Service, one of the more high-profile employment discrimination cases before the Court this term. Former employee of UPS, Young, sued the delivery company for allegedly discriminating against her in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).  The issue before the Court – whether the PDA requires employers to offer pregnant employees the same workplace accommodations that the employer offers to non-pregnant employees with the same work restrictions.

The facts of the case are simple – Ms. Young was unexpectedly terminated when she was expecting. Young had delivered packages for UPS for about four years when she became pregnant.  UPS requested that she provide a doctor’s note regarding her ability to work. Young’s physician thereafter recommended that she not lift more than twenty (20) pounds while pregnant.  Thereafter, UPS placed Young on unpaid leave on the basis that its drivers must be able to lift seventy (70) pounds.  In her lawsuit, Young challenges UPS’s decision, alleging that UPS inappropriately viewed her as “disabled” in violation of the PDA when it required that she take unpaid leave, even though it offered other non-pregnant workers the option of performing “light duty” work.

UPS has responded to Young’s claims by explaining that “light duty” assignments are offered only to individuals disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, injured on the job, or who lost their federal driver’s certificate.  The employer’s position is that this policy was not discriminatory against pregnant employees, but rather, is “pregnancy-blind.” In other words, “light duty” assignments were reserved for only these three categories of employees, pregnant or not.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of UPS.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act states that pregnant women “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purpose[s] . . . as other person not so affected by similar in their ability or inability to work.”  In reviewing the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision, the Supreme Court is essentially deciding between two different interpretation of the PDA – one that only prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, but not neutral policies (UPS’s position) and the other that requires employers to accommodate pregnant employees regardless of the company policy (Young’s stance).

Regardless of the Court’s decision, employers and employees alike should keep in mind that amendments in 2008 to the Americans with Disabilities Act extended federal protections for pregnant employees, thus, eliminating the underlying issue in – Young. v. UPS – the requirement that pregnant employees be accommodated.  Since Young’s lawsuit was filed prior to these amendments, they are inapplicable to her case.  Employers and  employees today should operate under the ADA’s requirement that injuries  that temporarily limit an individual’s ability to lift, including pregnancy, should qualify for accommodation.  In fact, UPS has already reversed its policy to reflect these changes, while maintaining that,  at the time of Young’s accommodation request, it was lawful denied.

If you have questions on proper accommodation of employees or by employers under the ADA, or concerns pertaining to avoidance of or response to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace in connection with the PDA, please contact me.