Alert: U.S. Supreme Court Holds Against UPS in Important Pregnancy Accommodation Case

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in UPS v. Young (U.S. 2015) today, rejecting both parties’ interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and providing a framework for future disputes.

Peggy Young was a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS). When she became pregnant, her doctor advised that she not lift more than 20 pounds. UPS, however, re­quired drivers like Young to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS told Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction.

In District Court, Young pointed to UPS policies that provided accommodations to work­ers who were injured on the job, were disabled under the Amer­icans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or had lost Department of Transportation certifications. Young argued that UPS had accommodated individuals with work restrictions similar to hers, and that providing light-duty work for these individuals but not for pregnant employees amounted to discrimination. UPS responded that, since Young did not fall within the on-the-job injury, ADA, or DOT categories, it had not discriminated against Young on the basis of pregnancy, but had treated her just as it treated all “other” relevant “persons.”

The District Court granted UPS summary judgment, concluding that Young could not make out a prima facie case of dis­crimination under the test contained in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that governs the presentation of evidence. The court found that the workers with whom Young had compared herself—those falling within the on-the-job, DOT, or ADA categories—were too different to qualify as “similarly situated comparators.” This holding was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Of greatest interest to MSEC members is the Supreme Court’s holding that a pregnant worker seeking accommodation should be compared to other workers “sim­ilar in their ability or inability to work.” There can be cases where an employer can legitimately deny an accommodation, and to prevail in such a case in court, the employee must show the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s “le­gitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons do not justify the burden. The plaintiff accomplishes this by “providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while fail­ing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”

The case was ultimately remanded to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for additional handling consistent with today’s opinion.

The holding also includes a less-than-flattering portrayal of the EEOC’s 2014 guidance on pregnancy discrimination, calling it “inconsistent with positions long advocated by the Government.” The vitality of the aforementioned guidance is called into question by today’s opinion.

Today’s decision, while not surprising, is a reminder that denying an accommodation to a pregnant woman as a matter of policy is a perilous course of action. Members with light-duty programs limited to certain groups should contact MSEC promptly. MSEC is always available to assist you with any request for accommodation.