March 26, 2015

Supreme Court Opens The Floodgates To Pregnancy Discrimination Cases

This week, in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the United States Supreme Court found that, under Title VII, employers must provide pregnant employees with the same accommodations that they provide to employees in similar positions who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  In those terms, it’s an unremarkable decision — treat pregnant employees the same way you treat others.  But dig just a little deeper into the opinion and you can see that a clear majority of the court — from both ideological ends — has made the task of defending claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) much more difficult.

Peggy Young was employed by UPS as a part-time driver when, in 2006, she became pregnant.  Young sought light duty work from UPS, but her request was denied because UPS said that her lifting restrictions were inconsistent with the requirements of her job. Under its collective bargaining agreement, however, UPS did allow temporary lifting restrictions to drivers who were either injured on the job or who lost their DOT certification.  In practice, several UPS employees had received similar accommodations for disabilities that happened both on and off the job. Indeed, one witness testified that the only time light duty request became an issue with women who were pregnant.

Title VII was amended in 1978 by the PDA to provide that sex discrimination included discrimination based on pregnancy, and 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.”

The stated purpose of the PDA was to overturn a Supreme Court decision which had upheld an employer’s policy that provided disability benefits to injured employees, but not pregnant employees. The question in this case was whether the PDA requires employers to provide accommodations, like light duty, to pregnant employees.

Six of the nine justices — including Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, who are usually employer-friendly — agree that the basic premise of the law is clear: employers must accommodate pregnant employees same way that they accommodate other similarly situated employees.The real issue was how to determine whether an employee is similarly situated to a pregnant woman.  For example, how significant was it that UPS allowed accommodations for other disabled employee is when it didn’t do so with pregnant employees?

Ultimately, the court relied on the language of the statute to make that determination.  It found that a pregnant employee can prevail when she proves that her employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  An employer is liable for pregnancy discrimination if its only reason for refusing to provide an accommodation to pregnant employee is is that it is more expensive or less convenient to do so.

The Court’s most significant holding, however, was that in pregnancy discrimination cases — unlike other discrimination cases — a plaintiff can escape summary judgment solely through the use of statistics.  In particular, it found that summary judgment was inappropriate when statistics show that “an employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”  This is a significant departure from previous court holdings which found that the use of statistics alone is not sufficient for an employee in a discrimination case to avoid summary judgment.

Because of this, employers will now face more significant litigation hurdles in Title VII pregnancy discrimination cases.  Not only will summary judgment and dismissal be harder to achieve, but this case opens the door to voluminous discovery about the historical, statistics, not routinely kept by employers, about the accommodation of disabled and pregnant employees.  So, while the narrow holding of the case is hardly earth-shattering, the practical consequences for employers may be very significant.