On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion which set new rules governing the relationship between an employer and its pregnant employees. The justices rejected arguments made by employers and employees alike and instead offered  a new interpretation of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The ruling also provides guidance to courts for future pregnancy discrimination claims.In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., Peggy Young—a Virginia resident—was employed as a driver for UPS to deliver packages to customers.  She became pregnant and her doctors told her not to lift any packages weighing more than 20 pounds for the first part of her pregnancy and no more than 10 pounds in the latter stages of her pregnancy. Company policy, though, required drivers like Young to be capable of moving objects that weigh up to 70 pounds. UPS informed Young that so long as she remained under her doctor’s restrictions, she would not be allowed to work in any position. UPS later insisted that its decision related solely to Young’s inability to perform her job duties and had nothing to do with Young’s pregnancy, because all drivers in Young’s position had to satisfy the lifting rules.Other workers at UPS, though, did receive reassignments to light-duty work for issues such as workplace injuries or qualified disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act that also restricted their lifting ability. Pregnancy was simply not treated as a qualifying status to be eligible for such an assignment at UPS.Young sued UPS in federal court, arguing that its failure to offer her light-duty work violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed in 1978 and added pregnancy protections to Title VII of the federal civil rights law. Young lost at the trial court level and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Those courts held that UPS’ disability policy was “pregnancy-blind,” in that it did not single out pregnant employees in a discriminatory fashion.

The Supreme Court of the United States likewise rejected Young’s argument that pregnant employees should be afforded the same accommodations as other employees who have similar limitations due to a condition other than pregnancy. But neither did the Court endorse the narrow reading of the PDA that UPS sought.

Instead, the Court held that a pregnant worker can establish an initial pregnancy discrimination claim by (1) offering proof that she is a member of the “protected class,” defined as those who can become pregnant; (2) that she sought an accommodation due to her membership in this class when she was unable to perform her normal job duties; (3) that her employer refused to accommodate her; and (4) that the employer provided a similar accommodation to other employees who are similarly unable to perform their jobs.

Once the employee meets that threshold, the employer may then show that its workplace policy was not biased against pregnant employees but was instead guided by a non-discriminatory business decision. The employee then has the opportunity to show, if she can, that the employer’s proffered business reason is, in fact, pretext for discrimination, or that the workplace policy places a “significant burden” on female employees and the policy is not “sufficiently strong” to justify the burden.

Having set forth a new framework for deciding the case, the Court then sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for application of the new rules.

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Michael P. Gardner
Associate
Labor and Employment Practice Group

Patice L. Holland
Associate
Labor and Employment Practice Group