Supreme Court Sheds Light on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

By Sarah Wesley Fox and Kayla J. Marshall

The United States Supreme Court recently provided a framework to evaluate whether an employer has violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) under Title VII[1]by failing to accommodate an employee who has a pregnancy-related medical restriction. In Young v. UPS,[2] the Court held that an employee who brings a claim under the PDA can rebut the legitimacy of an employer’s articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying an accommodation, if the employer’s policies impose a significant burden and the employer’s reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify that burden.  

Peggy Young brought a claim asserting that United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) violated the PDA by refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. Young was a part-time driver for UPS. When she became pregnant, her doctor advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds. As a driver she was required to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS’s polices allowed for a workplace accommodation only if a driver was hurt on the job, lost Department of Transportation certification or had a permanent disability. Young requested that UPS accommodate her medical restriction, asserting that the reason for the medical restriction was irrelevant under the PDA. UPS, asserting that it was acting consistent with its policies, denied Young’s request for an accommodation. Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of her pregnancy and lost her medical coverage.

The Court held that an employee who brings a claim under the PDA may establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing: (1) she belongs to a protected class; (2) she sought an accommodation; (3) she was not accommodated by her employer; and (4) her employer accommodated others “similar in their ability or inability to work." Once an employee establishes her prima facie case, the employer may justify its refusal to accommodate the employee by articulating a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason for its actions. The Court noted that the employer’s “reason normally cannot consist of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient” to provide an accommodation to pregnant women. If an employer offers a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its conduct, an employee can still prevail on a discrimination claim by showing that the employer’s reason was a pretext for discrimination. A question of pretext may exist if the “employer’s policies impose a significant burden” on pregnant employees and the “employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.” 

The Court’s decision clarifies the framework for evaluating a pregnancy discrimination accommodation claim under the PDA. Going forward, an employer should be cautious about relying on mere cost or inconvenience as a justification for refusing to provide an accommodation to a pregnant employee with a pregnancy-related restriction while providing similar accommodations to employees who are not pregnant. Moreover, it may be more difficult for an employer to obtain summary judgment in certain cases if the focus of the litigation centers on the significance of the burden and the sufficiently strong justification for the employer’s actions. Note also that the events giving rise to the litigation in Young v. UPS occurred prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).[3] In the ADAAA, Congress expanded the definition of “disability” under the ADA to include temporary impairments and “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit an individual’s ability to lift, stand or bend”—effectively requiring that employers treat pregnancy-related medical impairments that substantially limit a major life activity as a disability under the ADAAA.

For additional information concerning the Young v. UPS decision and pregnancy in the workplace, please see our webinar discussing this case.    

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k).

[2] 135 S.Ct. 1338 (2015).

[3] 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102(1)–(2).


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