U.S. Supreme Court Splits the Baby in Pregnancy Discrimination Act Case

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In December, I highlighted the United States Supreme Court’s hearing of Young v. United Parcel Service, one of the more high-profile employment discrimination cases before the Court for that term.  As a recap, Young, a former employee of UPS, sued the delivery company for allegedly discriminating against her in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), which 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.”  The specific issue before the Supreme Court in Young was 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. For a complete review of the case presented to the Court, click here.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled on Young, ultimately overturning the Fourth Circuit court’s decision granting summary judgment to UPS.  According to Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, “Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.”  In argument, Young championed a view that the PDA “requires an employer to provide the same accommodations to workplace disabilities caused by pregnancy that it provides to workplace disabilities that have other causes but have a similar effect on the ability to work.”  In other words, Young supported a reading that required accommodation for pregnant workers anytime a non-pregnant worker was accommodated.  Meanwhile, UPS argued that the PDA “does no more than define sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination,” i.e., neutral policies that treat pregnant and non-pregnant workers without on-the-job injuries alike are non-discriminatory. Despite its ruling in favor of Young, the Court did not favor her, or UPS’s, interpretation of the PDAt.  Instead, the Court “split the baby,” so to speak, and offered a framework for examining workplace accommodation practices under the Act, without deciding on a specific statutory interpretation.

Specifically, the Court took a middle ground approach – holding that  an employee may make out a case of pregnancy discrimination by showing that she belongs to the protected class, sought accommodation, was denied accommodation, and the employer did accommodate others similar in their ability or inability to work.  Thereafter, the employer has the opportunity to justify its refusal to accommodate with a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason to its decision.  The employee than has the opportunity to demonstrate that this rational is “pretextual.”  In sum, the Court directed lower courts to apply the Title VII burden-shifting approach to determine whether discrimination occurred.

So, in addition to clarifying the PDA standard for you – what is the biggest take-away from Young?  Be proactive. The Young decision, combined with the recent expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which now applies to short-time complications arising from pregnancy), as well as the legal obligations imposed under the Family and Medical Leave Act, make it clear that now is a good time to review your accommodations policies and practices. The best way to avoid litigation or minimize damages arising from inadvertent pregnancy or disability discrimination is to conduct a human resources audit to ensure your policies and practices comply with federal and state laws and/or regulations.  If you have questions or concerns regarding how to conduct such an audit or other inquests regarding proper accommodation of employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Pregnancy Discrimination Act, please contact me.