On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the heavily-watched case of Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., which adopted a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and rejected the 2014 guidelines that were promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for handling such cases.
In Young, the plaintiff was employed by the defendant, United Parcel Service (UPS), as a part-time driver and was required to pick up and deliver packages weighing up to 70 pounds as part of her job duties. When she became pregnant, however, plaintiff requested a temporary light duty assignment based upon a lifting restriction imposed by her doctor. UPS denied plaintiff’s request on the grounds that she did not fall within any of the categories of workers eligible for light duty assignments under its collective bargaining agreement, which included (1) drivers who were injured on the job, (2) drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications, and (3) drivers who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result of this denial, plaintiff stayed home without pay for the majority of her pregnancy and eventually lost her health insurance coverage.
Thereafter, plaintiff filed a federal lawsuit claiming that UPS violated the PDA by refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction by giving her the same light duty assignment it had provided to drivers who fell within one of the above-referenced categories. At the close of discovery, however, UPS moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff was not “similarly situated” to the drivers who fell within these three categories, and that she could not show that its legitimate reason for denying her accommodation request was a pretext for unlawful discrimination against pregnant women. Ultimately, the district court agreed with these arguments and granted UPS’s motion for summary judgment in full, which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed.
On appeal, however, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the lower courts, and announced a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims involving a plaintiff who is alleging she was denied an accommodation for a pregnancy-related work restriction given to non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Specifically, the Court held that in such cases, if the employer has pointed to a neutral policy as its legitimate reason for its denial of the sought-after accommodation, the plaintiff can establish pretext by proving that (1) the policy imposes a “significant burden” on pregnant employees, and (2) the reasons for the policy are not “sufficiently strong to justify the burden.”
This standard effectively creates a new avenue for plaintiffs in pregnancy discrimination cases to establish pretext. Prior to Young, a plaintiff asserting an intentional discrimination claim under federal law was required to establish that the employer’s stated reason for a particular employment action was pretextual by offering evidence of weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions in the employer’s rationale. Thus, the focus of the pretext inquiry under the prior standard (which apparently still applies in all other forms of individual disparate treatment claims under federal law), was on the truth (or lack thereof) of the employer’s reason for taking the challenged employment action. However, under the standard adopted by the Court in Young for federal pregnancy discrimination claims, a plaintiff does not actually have to produce evidence that the employer’s stated reasons for denying an accommodation is false – she only has to show the denial has a significant impact on pregnant employees, and the reasons for that denial are not strong enough to justify that impact (i.e., even if they are true).
Notably, however, although this new standard does reduce the hurdles facing a pregnancy discrimination plaintiff, it is far more employer-friendly than the position set forth in the EEOC’s controversial 2014 guidelines on pregnancy accommodation issues, which essentially require an employer to provide a particular accommodation to a pregnant employee whenever that accommodation has been provided to another subset of workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work. In rejecting this approach, the Court noted that, while such guidelines would usually be entitled to special deference, the EEOC’s 2014 guidelines on pregnancy discrimination lacked the “consistency” and “thoroughness” to be afforded any weight. Moreover, the Court noted that, if the EEOC’s approach was adopted, it would cloak all pregnant employees with a “most favored-nation” status, effectively requiring an employer who provides one or two workers with an accommodation to provide similar accommodations to all pregnant employees, regardless of any other criteria. Finding that such an outcome was simply not grounded in the statutory language of the PDA, the Court rejected the EEOC’s position and remanded the case back to the Fourth Circuit for reconsideration under its newly-announced standard.
As a result of the Court’s decision in Young, employers would be well advised to review and revise their employment policies to ensure that they comply with the Court’s directives on accommodating pregnant workers. In doing so, special attention should be paid to whether pregnant workers are eligible to receive the same accommodations provided to other employees who are similar in their ability / inability to work, and if not, whether their exclusion is justified by identifiable and compelling reasons beyond the fact that it “is more expensive or less convenient” to add pregnant women to the list of employees eligible to receive such an accommodation.