April 16, 2015, Trial News | The American Association For Justice Archive

April 16, 2015, Trial News

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Supreme Court creates framework for analyzing accommodations for pregnant workers

Cindy Gierhart

photo of pregnant woman at computer desk

The Supreme Court recently established a burden-shifting framework for a pregnant worker to demonstrate discrimination—it considers whether many nonpregnant employees were given an accommodation while pregnant employees were not.

The Supreme Court recently held 6-3 that a pregnant worker may demonstrate discrimination through a burden-shifting framework that has the court determine whether many nonpregnant employees were given an accommodation while pregnant employees were not. (Young v. United Parcel Serv., 2015 WL 1310745 (U.S. Mar. 25, 2015).)

“The opinion is excellent for pregnant workers,” said Arlington, Va., attorney Sharon Fast Gustafson, who represented pregnant worker Peggy Young in this case. “Prior to this decision, . . . pregnant workers could almost never win workplace discrimination cases [based on lack of accommodation]” because employers would create categories of workers who received accommodations and say that pregnant workers didn’t fall into those categories, Gustafson said.

“Employers could come up with an elaborate set of policies that permitted them to accommodate anyone they wanted to accommodate while at the same time excluding pregnant workers,” Gustafson said. Such an approach is no longer permissible under Young v. United Parcel Service.

Young worked as a United Parcel Service (UPS) delivery driver until she became pregnant in 2006. Her job required that she be able to lift up to 70 pounds, but her doctor advised that she not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy and not more than 10 pounds later in her pregnancy.

Young sought an accommodation so that she could continue to work for UPS in a position that did not require heavy lifting for the duration of her pregnancy. UPS offers accommodations for three categories of workers: those injured on the job; those who lost Department of Transportation certification for any reason, including driving under the influence; and those who had a disability covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Young was denied an accommodation, so she took unpaid leave for much of her pregnancy and eventually lost her work-sponsored health insurance. She returned to work as a UPS driver in 2007, about two months after having her baby.

Young sued UPS for discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 adds to the definition of discrimination based on sex to include pregnancy-related claims. Further, it says that pregnant workers should be treated the same as nonpregnant workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The Fourth Circuit had held that UPS did not discriminate against pregnant workers because it simply treated them the same as other categories of workers who were not given accommodations, such as those injured off the job (only those injured on the job were given accommodations).

But the Supreme Court said the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires a different analysis. The Court established this framework: First, the pregnant worker must make a prima facie showing of discrimination, then the burden shifts to the defendant to show it had a nondiscriminatory reason for denying the accommodation, and then the plaintiff has the burden of showing the defendant’s stated reason is actually a pretext for discrimination.

To prove the stated reason is pretextual, the Court said Young could show that “UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.”

“When it comes to who she’s comparing herself to, she gets to do exactly what the Pregnancy Discrimination Act says she gets to do,” Gustafson said. “She gets to compare herself to others who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Period.”

Young’s case has been remanded to the Fourth Circuit. Gustafson said she expects the Fourth Circuit will send it back to the district court for trial.