Supreme Court Puts Employers on Notice About Accommodating Pregnant Employees

In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court put employers on notice that depending on the circumstances, they may have a duty to provide pregnant employees with the same light duty accommodations provided to other employees. In light of the Young decision, employers should review their policies for accommodating pregnant employees.

Peggy Young, a driver for UPS, sued UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), alleging that UPS discriminated against her by not giving her the same light duty assignments that it gave to drivers disabled for reasons other than pregnancy when her pregnancy made her unable to perform her regular job duties. Under UPS’s policies, it provided light duty only to drivers injured on the job; drivers with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation certification. When Young became disabled because of her pregnancy, UPS placed her on unpaid leave and she eventually lost her employee medical coverage. She returned to work after giving birth.

After she returned to work, Young filed her lawsuit in federal court alleging that UPS had discriminated against her under the PDA by not assigning her light duty during her pregnancy when it provided light duty to other drivers who were disabled for other reasons. In essence, Young alleged that because UPS provided light duty to other disabled drivers, the PDA required that it provide the same accommodation to pregnant employees. UPS contended that its conduct did not violate the PDA because it provided light duty only in the above situations and, therefore, its decision was unrelated to her pregnancy. The federal district court agreed with UPS and dismissed Young’s lawsuit. She then appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which affirmed the dismissal of her lawsuit, stating that UPS’s policy did not violate the PDA because the policy was based on a “neutral and legitimate business practice” and was a “pregnancy-blind policy.”

However, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision and vacated the dismissal of Young’s lawsuit and remanded the case for further proceedings. In doing so, the Supreme Court articulated a new standard for determining when an employer violates the PDA by not accommodating a pregnant employee. Adapting the familiar burden-shifting analysis under Title VII, the Supreme Court held that an employee can establish a prima facie claim of pregnancy discrimination on account of failing to provide an accommodation by showing: (1) she belongs to the protected class; (2) she sought an accommodation; (3) the employer did not accommodate her; and (4) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Once the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its refusal to accommodate the employee. (The Supreme Court stated that claiming an accommodation is inconvenient or more expensive to provide will usually not suffice as a sufficient reason.) If the employer meets its burden, the employee must show that the employer’s reason is a pretext for pregnancy discrimination by showing that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers and that the employer’s reason is not “sufficiently strong” to “justify the burden, but rather – when considered along with the burden imposed – give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”

The Supreme Court’s decision provides room for employers, under some circumstances, to accommodate some groups of employees without also accommodating pregnant employees. However, because of the high burden imposed by the Supreme Court to justify such a policy, it likely will be rare that an employer will be able to do so. As a result, employers should review their policies and practices with regard to accommodating disabled and pregnant employees to ensure they comply with the PDA. At a minimum, employers should:

  • review light duty policies and make sure they also apply to pregnant employees;
  • review policies and practices to ensure compliance not only with the PDA, but also the ADA and applicable state laws, such as the New York Human Rights Law;
  • create practices and procedures for processing accommodation requests from pregnant and other disabled employees; and
  • train human resources employees, managers and supervisors on how to properly respond to all types of requests for accommodations.

Additional Assistance

For more information regarding the PDA, please contact any of the attorneys on our Labor & Employment Practice Team.