The Second Circuit Reverses the Northern District of New York’s Decision in a Pregnancy Discrimination Case in Light of the Holding in Young v. United Parcel

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On April 27, 2016, the Second Circuit decided Legg et al. v. Ulster County et al., in which it reversed the Northern District of New York’s decision at summary judgment dismissing a pregnancy discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  Legg arose after Ann Marie Legg, a corrections officer at the Ulster County Jail (“Ulster Jail”), requested an accommodation under Ulster Jail’s “light duty” policy.  Ulster Jail’s light duty policy allows employees suffering from medical conditions resulting from a line-of-duty injury to be reassigned to deskwork, i.e., to positions that do not include inmate contact.  Under the policy, pregnant women are not eligible for light duty; they must either continue to work “full duty,” use accrued sick or vacation time, or take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In 2008, Ms. Legg became pregnant.  Her doctor told her that her pregnancy was “high risk” and recommended that she “shouldn’t have direct contact with inmates.”  In accordance with her doctors’ recommendation, she requested that Ulster Jail allow her to work light duty and submitted a doctors’ note in support.  Although at first Ms. Legg received a denial letter in July 2008 stating that “[e]mployees are afforded light duty assignments at the Sheriff’s discretion for work-related injuries/illnesses only,” she was later informed that Ulster Jail would grant her request once she submitted a revised doctors’ note indicating that she was in fact able to work without restriction.  Ms. Legg complied and submitted the letter. For a time, Ulster Jail assigned Ms. Legg to light work; however, around August 2008, they forced her to work with inmates again.  In November 2008, Ms. Legg, now seven months pregnant, was caught in the middle of a physical fight between two inmates during which one inmate bumped into her as he ran past her.  After this incident, Ms. Legg did not return to work until after she gave birth.  Upon returning to work, Ms. Legg brought a lawsuit against Ulster Jail alleging pregnancy discrimination for denying her request for light duty.  Ulster Jail moved for summary judgment, arguing that light duty was only available for employees injured in line of duty and that all employees regardless of their gender or pregnancy status, were treated the same under that policy. The district court granted Ulster Jails’s motion and dismissed the case.

The Second Circuit Court disagreed, relying primarily on the Supreme Court decision in Young v. United Parcel.  In Young, the Supreme Court held

[An employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act] when it treats pregnant employees less favorably than non-pregnant employees similar in their ability or inability to work to such an extent that it is more likely than not that the disparity is motivated by intentional discrimination.

The Supreme Court then articulated a modified McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework for courts to use in analyzing such cases.  To establish a prima facie case under Young, first, a plaintiff must show the following: (1) that she was pregnant, (2) sought accommodation, (3) that the employer did not accommodate her, and (4) that the employer did accommodate others who were similar in their inability to work.  Then, the employer has the opportunity to proffer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action—such as in Young, where the employer proffered a facially neutral accommodations policy. Next, if an employer is able to proffer such a reason, the plaintiff must show that the proffered reason is pretext for discrimination. A pregnant employee may make this showing by presenting “sufficient evidence that the employers’ policies impose a significant burden on pregnant employers, and that the employers’ legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.”  One way to prove that the policy imposes a significant burden on pregnant employees is to show that it accommodates a larger percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

Ms. Legg argued that Ulster Jail’s policy of only allowing employees injured on the job to work light duty imposed a significant burden on pregnant employees. The Second Circuit found that Ms. Legg had offered sufficient evidence to proceed to trial under the framework circulated in Young.  The court stated:

A reasonable jury could conclude that the defendants imposed a significant burden on pregnant employees because… the county categorically denied light duty accommodations to pregnant women.

In sum, the Second Circuit found that because a reasonable finder of fact could find that Ulster Jail’s at-issue policy was discriminatory, the district court should have denied Ulster Jail summary judgment.

If you have been discriminated against for being pregnant, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.