Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision regarding failure-to-accommodate claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (the PDA), a subsection of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The opinion includes a new test to be used in assessing PDA claims that could present employers with unique responsibilities in dealing with pregnant workers, as well as new challenges should they be faced with pregnancy-discrimination litigation.

The Court also found that the PDA provides pregnant workers with broad protections, but not as broad as those championed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC) in a July 2014 guidance published by the agency. All employers subject to Title VII should take careful note of the Court’s decision and review their employment policies and practices to ensure they remain in compliance with the newly announced standards.  

The case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., arose out of plaintiff Peggy Young’s requests for accommodations from her employer, UPS, where Ms. Young was a part-time driver. In 2006, she became pregnant and was instructed by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds at a time during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and not more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS required drivers like Ms. Young to lift at least 70 pounds at a time and only permitted exceptions to three sets drivers: those injured on the job, those whose U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications were suspended or revoked, and those covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Because Ms. Young did not fit within any of these categories, UPS denied her request for a lifting accommodation. Instead, she did not work, and was not paid, during her pregnancy, and she ultimately lost employee medical coverage.

Ms. Young brought suit claiming that UPS’s unwillingness to accommodate her, when it had exempted other, non-pregnant drivers from its lifting requirements, was impermissible. Specifically, she claimed that UPS violated the requirement in the PDA’s second clause that she as a pregnant worker be treated “the same for all employment-related purposes” as non-pregnant workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

After discovery, the district court where Ms. Young filed her claims awarded summary judgment to UPS. It found that the categories of drivers who received accommodations could not be considered “similarly situated” to Ms. Young because she did not fit in any of UPS’s three categories of accommodated workers. Further, under the McDonnell Douglas framework traditionally used in Title VII disparate-treatment claims, the court found that UPS had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying her request (i.e., application of its pregnancy-neutral policy) and that Ms. Young could not establish pretext. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Ms. Young appealed to the Supreme Court, which accepted the appeal, noting the uncertainty that existed about employers’ responsibilities under the PDA and how federal courts should analyze claims like hers.

The Court reversed the Fourth Circuit, but disagreed with arguments by both Ms. Young and UPS, as well as those raised by the EEOC. It rejected Ms. Young’s and the EEOC’s argument that the PDA required an employer to provide the same accommodations to pregnant workers as it does to workers accommodated for any other reason, including disability, if those workers are similarly limited in their ability to work. Such a view, the Court found, would result in affording pregnant employees “most-favored-nation” status, requiring they receive every benefit afforded to any of their non-pregnant peers, regardless of surrounding circumstances besides the ability to work. Such broad protection, the Court reasoned, could not have been Congress’s intent in passing the PDA. In disagreeing with this interpretation, the Court also specifically rejected the notion that it should follow the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance; the Court found this guidance contradicted the EEOC’s previous positions on the PDA.

Nevertheless, the Court found that the PDA provides pregnant workers with broad protections and that UPS’s policy may have violated the statute. To find otherwise, it held, would also fly in the face of congressional intent. Looking at the history of the PDA, the Court noted that the statute was passed specifically to overrule a 1976 Supreme Court determination that, under the pre-PDA version of Title VII, an employer could withhold certain benefits from pregnant workers that it provided to non-pregnant workers, provided it did not favor men over women in how it applied such a policy. In General Electric v. Gilbert, the Court found it lawful for an employer to differentiate between pregnancy and other absence-causing conditions, even though pregnancy was a condition “confined only to women.” Given this history, the current Court found that accepting UPS’s position that the PDA was merely meant to define sex discrimination under Title VII to include discrimination of pregnant workers would contradict its added purpose—i.e., to illustrate how discrimination against pregnant workers is to be remedied.

Based on its analysis, the Court fashioned its own test for analyzing a failure-to-accommodate PDA claim like Ms. Young’s. Echoing the McDonnell Douglas framework, it found that a plaintiff may pursue such a claim by showing:

  • She is or was a member of the protected class.
  • She requested accommodations.
  • The employer denied her request.
  • The employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

An employer may rebut the resulting inference of discrimination by showing that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying the accommodation request. Importantly, however, the Court found that the PDA requires that such a reason “cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those . . . whom the employer accommodates.” If the employer can articulate such a legitimate reason (other than cost or convenience), then a plaintiff may respond by showing that the stated reason is pretext.

According to the Court, the plaintiff may reach a jury on the issue of pretext “by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s . . . reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.” For example, the Court held that a plaintiff like Ms. Young should have her claims determined by a jury based on evidence that the employer accommodates either a large percentage of non-pregnant workers or several categories workers to determine whether the employer’s justification for a refusal to accommodate a pregnant worker is pretext for discrimination.  

The Court’s test, by eliminating both cost and convenience as legitimate considerations, appears to invite a degree of subjectivity into PDA disparate-treatment claims. It also could impose heavy discovery burdens on employers faced with PDA litigation as plaintiffs may now seek to learn about any and all accommodations employers grant to non-pregnant workers limited in their ability to work. In addition, while Ms. Young’s claims arose in 2006, the Court took specific note of changes Congress made to the ADA in 2008 that expanded the definition of “disability” to include lifting-related impairments and, in some circumstances, temporary conditions. While these changes did not affect Ms. Young, the Court stated that a pregnant employee like her may qualify for ADA protection in the future.

The full impact of the Young decision will be uncertain until lower courts and the EEOC have had the opportunity to apply the Court’s new test for PDA claims in specific cases. Almost immediately after the opinion was released, the EEOC announced that it would review and potentially revise its 2014 guidance on pregnancy discrimination, which the Court refused to accept given the EEOC's inconsistency and lack of thorough consideration of the subject matter. Nevertheless, employers may take several steps now to achieve maximum compliance with the PDA:

  • Reexamine all light duty and accommodation policies to determine whether changes are needed to comply with the Young decision.
  • Review employment policies and train supervisors and HR personnel to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth-related requests for light duty or accommodations are adequately reviewed and recorded.
  • Give due consideration to all employee requests for light duty or accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Such considerations should include how similarly situated, non-pregnant workers have been treated.
  • Determine whether legitimate reasons, other than cost and convenience, justify denial of any light duty or accommodation requests before denying the request. This determination is crucial when any similarly situated, non-pregnant workers previously have received the requested light duty or accommodations.
  • Ensure that a process exists for recording all requests of light duty or accommodations given to both pregnant and non-pregnant workers.
  • Monitor the EEOC’s public pronouncements for comment and potentially revised guidance regarding employer responsibilities under the PDA.

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Labor and Employment Group review antidiscrimination employer policies and practices and defend against claims brought under the PDA, Title VII, and similar state and local laws. If you have questions about the Young decision and its implications, please contact Christopher T. Cognato at 215.864.8612 or cognatoc@ballardspahr.com, or the member of the Group with whom you work.


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