Court Revives 2008 Pregnancy Bias Suit by Former UPS Employee Who Was Denied Light Duty Work Accommodation

On March 25th, the United States Supreme Court vacated a lower court’s ruling in favor of United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) against a former delivery truck driver, Peggy Young, who claimed, among other things, that she was discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy.  Ms. Young alleged that due to medical restrictions associated with her pregnancy, she required and requested that UPS provide her with a light duty accommodation.  Although UPS provides such accommodations to certain other non-pregnant employees, here it denied Ms. Young’s request.

In its 6-3 decision, the Court held that there was a genuine factual dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation “cannot reasonably be distinguished” from Ms. Young’s —e.g., workers who were unable to lift up to 70 pounds due to other reasons such as a workplace injury or a recognized disability under the ADA.

The Court’s decision dissects the language of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).  The majority disagreed with both Ms. Young’s and UPS’ proposed interpretation of the statute, instead opting for a middle-of-the-road statutory interpretation (which Justice Scalia colorfully derided in a blisteringly sarcastic dissent as “splendidly unconnected” to the language of the statute and created through the majority’s waiving of their “Supreme Wand”).  Although the majority rejected Ms. Young’s argument that UPS’ policy was inherently discriminatory, it held that she could use the traditional McDonnell-Douglas burden shifting framework to establish her prima facie case and raise an inference of intentional discrimination.  Specifically, the majority held that a plaintiff could create a triable issue of fact by establishing that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers by demonstrating that the employer accommodated a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate in the same manner pregnant workers.  The Court remanded the case to a lower court to determine whether Ms. Young also could establish whether UPS’ reasons for its failure to accommodate were pretextual.

Notably, during the pendency of this seven-year lawsuit, UPS decided to voluntarily change its internal policy regarding pregnancy accommodations. As of January 1, 2015, UPS makes light duty work available to pregnant workers who have medical restrictions from a physician.  Not to be left out, the EEOC also issued new pregnancy discrimination guidance just two weeks after the Supreme Court decided to review Young in July 2014.  In its guidance, the EEOC emphasized that “an employer must provide light duty for pregnant workers on the same terms that light duty is offered to employees injured on the job who are similar to the pregnant worker in their ability or inability to work.”  The Supreme Court found the EEOC’s interpretation of the PDA unpersuasive, and it appears that in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision this week, the EEOC will have to revise at least some of its guidance, which is now in part inconsistent with the Court’s decision.

This case serves as a cautionary tale for employers who may have policies similar to that in Young regarding light duty work eligibility and/or reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees.  Employers should review their policies to ensure that they do not disparately impact or otherwise discriminate against any protected class, including pregnant workers.