United States Supreme Court Clarifies Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Law

On March 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Young v. UPS that will effect our practice as Des Moines employment discrimination lawyers. Federal pregnancy discrimination law was at issue in the case. I've previously written about the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Young involved an employee, Peggy Young, who had doctor-imposed lifting restrictions during her pregnancy. UPS told Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

Young later sued UPS for pregnancy discrimination. She claimed that UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. Young said that her co-workers were willing to help her with heavy packages. She also said that UPS accommodated other drivers who were "similar in their . . . inability to work." She accordingly concluded that UPS must accommodate her as well.

UPS responded that the other persons whom it had accommodated were (1) drivers who had become disabled on the job, (2) those who had lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications, and (3) those who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). UPS said that, since Young did not fall within any of those categories, it had not discriminated against Young on the basis of pregnancy but had treated her just as it treated all employees in similar situations.

At issue in the case were federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination against pregnant women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids a covered employer to "discriminate against any individual with respect to . . . terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . sex." In 1978, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which added new language to Title VII and specified that Title VII's "ter[m] `because of sex' . . . include[s] . . . because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." The Pregnancy Discrimination Act further states that "women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work . . . ." 

It's important to note that Young did not involve a Family and Medical Leave Act claim. Young wanted to work, make money, and retain her health insurance coverage. She did not want to stay home on unpaid leave. The question was whether UPS should've allowed Young to keep working by granting her request for a temporary work accommodation.

Nor did Young implicate the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which I've written about before on this blog. Those amendments to federal disability discrimination law weren't in effect at the time of the events in Young. The Court in Young specifically noted that the ADAAA was not part of its decision.

Ultimately, despite a lot of excitement leading up to the case from various sectors, the Court ruled that pregnancy discrimination claims should be analyzed like any other type of discrimination claim under federal law. In other words, federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their pregnancy. So an employee asserting a pregnancy discrimination claim has to meet the same elements as an employee asserting race, sex, or other types of discrimination.

Of course, one way to prove such a case is to have explicit evidence that the employee's pregnancy was the reason behind the employer's decision. But such "direct evidence" is hard to come by and rarely available in employment discrimination cases. Thus, a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act second may instead use circumstantial evidence by proving that she belongs to the protected class (pregnant female), that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others "similar in their ability or inability to work."

The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on "legitimate, nondiscriminatory" reasons for denying her accommodation. But that reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those "similar in their ability or inability to work" whom the employer accommodates. The employer has the burden of proving that a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason existed for its denial of the employee's requested pregnancy accommodation.

If the employer offers an apparently "legitimate, nondiscriminatory" reason for its actions, the plaintiff may in turn show that the employer's proffered reasons "pretextual," or false. A plaintiff may do so by providing sufficient evidence that the employer's policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer's "legitimate, nondiscriminatory" 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. A pregnancy discrimination plaintiff can also prove that a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. 

Harley Erbe