Supreme Court Confirms that Pregnancy Discrimination Act Prohibits Pregnancy-based Discrimination

Posted by Sean P. CecilMar 26, 20150 Comments

Back in 1976 the nine men on the United States Supreme Court in Gilbert v. General Electric basically said that pregnancy was not sex-related. That case addressed the issue of discriminatory treatment of a pregnant woman worker under the laws prohibiting sex discrimination, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A year later, to correct the ruling in Gilbert, Congress amended Title VII with what is known as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of worker Peggy Young in her Pregnancy Discrimination lawsuit against United Parcel Service. Young, a UPS driver, was limited by doctor's orders to lifting less than 20lbs because of her pregnancy. Her job description required that she be able to lift at least 75lbs, and UPS told her she could not work while on the weight restriction, refusing her requests for lighter work. UPS made lighter work accommodations for other workers that had limitations for non-pregnancy reasons, including on the job injuries.

The trial court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case, essentially ruling there were no material facts in dispute and that UPS must win the case as a matter of law. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, and Ms. Young appealed to the Supreme Court.

The argument made by the employer in Young would have made the pregnancy discrimination act meaningless for most women.

The first clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifies that Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” 42 U. S. C §2000e(k). The Act's second clause says that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” 

 Ms. Young's suit was brought on a claim of disparate treatment, that she was treated differently than other UPS employees who were not pregnant but were similar in their inability to drive for the company in a job that requires lifting 75lbs. A disparate treatment claim in a Pregnancy Discrimination suit can either be proven via direct evidence, or by what is known as McDonnell Douglas burden shifting, where the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the defendant has the opportunity to establish some "legitimate, non-discriminatory reason" for the different treatment, and then the burden is back on the plaintiff to establish that the given legitimate reason was a pretext to cover for actual discrimination. 

A pregnant worker claiming disparate treatment can establish a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas analysis by showing that she belongs to the protected class (pregnant), that she sought accommodation, that the accommodation request was denied, and that the employer did accommodate others who were similar in their ability or inability to work. 

The Court held that Young created a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from hers (except their situation was not caused by pregnancy). The Court further ruled that a plaintiff may reach a jury on the issue of pregnancy discrimination "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."

Taking all of the facts of the case in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court's dismissal of the case was inappropriate: "Here, for example, if the facts are as Young says they are, she can show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations."

A significant victory for women in the workplace

This is a big win, not just for Peggy Young but also for all women in the workplace. A ruling for UPS would have thwarted Congress's intent in passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience, when they make similar accommodations for other workers. This case is a big step forward towards enforcing the principle that a woman shouldn't have to choose between her pregnancy and her job.

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