SCOTUS Denies UPS Summary Judgment in Pregnancy Discrimination Action

Ciera Ambrose and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On March 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) articulated the standard for pregnancy discrimination claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (“PDA”). In Young v. UPS, the Court interpreted the second clause of the PDA, which requires employers to treat “women affected by pregnancy … the same for all employment-related purposes…as other purposes not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” The Court decided how this clause applies to employers that provide fewer accommodations to pregnant workers than to employees with non-pregnancy related disabilities.

Peggy Young was a part-time UPS driver. After becoming pregnant, her doctor advised her not to lift anything more than 20 pounds. UPS requires drivers are required to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds.   Young requested UPS to allow her to continue to working without requiring her to lift heavy packages to accommodate her pregnancy. UPS regularly gave such accommodations to employees who sustained work-related injuries or suffered from disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). UPS told Young that she could not work if she could not lift packages. Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of her pregnancy. Young sued UPS under the PDA, alleging that UPS had discriminated against her based on her pregnancy.

The district court granted summary judgment in UPS’s favor, finding that the workers with whom Young compared herself—those who suffered on-the-job injuries or ADA disabilities, were too different to qualify as similarly situated employees. According to the court, on-the-job injuries were distinguishable because they occur at the workplace in furtherance of the employer’s business, and the ADA, as then defined, only protected employees with permanent disabilities. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Writing on behalf of the 6-3 majority, Justice Breyer explained that the PDA does not require employers to offer benefits to pregnant employees that it does not provide to non-pregnant employees. The Court ruled that a complainant for pregnancy discrimination must show that her pregnancy “actually motivated the employer’s decision” to deny accommodation through direct evidence that a workplace policy relies expressly on a protected characteristic or through the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Under McDonnell Douglas, Young must show that (i) she was pregnant, (ii) she sought accommodation, (iii) the employer did not accommodate her, and (iv) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” If Young is able to make such a showing, the burden shifts to UPS to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for treating non-pregnant employees better than pregnant employees. If UPS articulates such a reason, Young has an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reasons offered were pretext for discrimination. Pretext is shown by providing sufficient evidence that UPS’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant employees, and that their legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify such burden, but rather—when considered in light of the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. In other words, why could UPS not accommodate pregnant women when it already accommodated so many other employees?

The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit to decide whether Young presented a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’s reasons for having treated Young less favorably than it treated these other non-pregnant employees were pretextual.

If you believe your employer has failed to accommodate your pregnancy, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.