U.S. Supreme Court Vacates Fourth Circuit’s Decision Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

On Wednesday, in a 6-3 decision with Justice Breyer writing for the majority, the Supreme Court revived Peggy Young’s pregnancy discrimination claim against UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

Young worked as an air driver for UPS, which required her to lift up to 70 pounds. After she became pregnant, Young’s doctor determined that she should not lift more than 20 pounds. Consequently, UPS informed Young that, given her lifting restrictions, she could not work as an air driver. Although UPS offered light-duty assignments to some categories of workers pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement, Young’s pregnancy-based restriction did not fall into those approved categories, so UPS denied her requested light-duty accommodation.

Young argued that by denying her a temporary assignment, UPS violated the PDA, which mandates that pregnant workers must be treated the same for all employment-related purposes. UPS countered that it treated Young the same as other similarly-situated employees. The district court and Fourth Circuit agreed that UPS’s decision was legally permissible because Young could not show that “similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment than she did.” The district court granted summary judgment to UPS, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court disagreed, holding instead that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework for disparate-treatment discrimination cases applies to pregnancy-accommodation claims under the PDA. Applying the burden-shifting analysis, the Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision: “Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some em­ployees whose situation cannot reasonably be distin­guished from Young’s.” The Court found that Young introduced evidence that UPS had three separate accommodation policies, which, when taken together, arguably significantly burdened pregnant women. As a result, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit to consider the combined effects of UPS’s light-duty policies and the strength of UPS’s justifications for those policies. The Court asked the Fourth Circuit to consider “why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”

Although employers’ obligations under the PDA remain somewhat unclear, yesterday's ruling from the Supreme Court cautions employers to review their light-duty policies to ensure pregnant women are included.

Written by:

Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP
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