SCOTUS Articulates Standard For Pregnancy Accommodations

On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its awaited decision in Young_v._UPS_(12-1226), in which the Court set forth the standard to be used in analyzing sex discrimination cases involving an employer’s failure to provide pregnant employees with work accommodations.  Although the  Court did not rule that employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees per se, the effect of its analysis compels that accommodations be considered and provided.

The case involves a driver for UPS, Peggy Young, whose physician restricted her from lifting more than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and then 10 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy.  UPS policies required that employees be able to lift 70 pounds alone, and up to 150 pounds with assistance.  As a result, UPS did not permit Young to work during her pregnancy, and she ultimately lost her medical coverage.  UPS’s policy did, however, provide accommodations to employees who could not meet the lifting requirements, but only where workers  (i) were injured on the job; (ii) had a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and (iii) lost Department of Transportation certifications.  According to UPS, because Young was not included within one of these three categories, UPS did not discriminate against her.  Young argued that UPS  discriminated against pregnant employees because it maintained light duty policies for the three categories of employees, but not for workers who were pregnant.  Consequently, she argued, UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), which extended the prohibitions of sex discrimination contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

The Supreme Court rejected both Young’s and UPS’s interpretation of the PDA as they related to the issue of pregnancy accommodations.   According to the Court, the law permits “an employer to implement policies that are not intended to harm members of a protected class, even if their implementation sometimes harms those members, as long as the employer has a legitimate nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual reason for doing so.”  As a result of this principle of employment discrimination analysis, a pregnant worker can establish a prima facie case by showing that she belongs to the protected class, sought an accommodation, that the employer failed to accommodate her, and the employer accommodated others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  If the employee is able to meet this burden, then the employer must come forward with some evidence of a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for not granting the accommodation to the pregnant worker.  Although under the traditional analysis, the employee would only be able to rebut the nondiscriminatory reason by showing that it was not the real reason motivating the employer’s refusal to accommodate, the Supreme Court appears to have taken a slightly different approach.  According to the Court, the employee would be permitted to a jury trial if she could produce sufficient evidence that the employer’s policy places a “significant burden on pregnant workers,” and the employer’s legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons are not strong enough to “justify the burden.”  Under such circumstances, with due consideration given to the burden imposed, an inference of intentional discrimination could arise.  Thus, an employee might be able to prove pregnancy discrimination where she could show that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers, while refusing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

The Supreme Court did not consider whether  pregnancy could be deemed a “disability” under the ADA, under which employers are expressly required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to disabled workers, and refused to consider a 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guideline addressing pregnancy discrimination under Title VII and the ADA.   Nevertheless, the Court’s opinion sets forth a practical analysis for evaluating such cases under the PDA.

New York City employees also benefit from a January 2014 amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law, which affirmatively requires that pregnant employees be provided with reasonable accommodations.