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Pregnancy Accommodation – Did SCOTUS Provide Clarity?

Posted by Eric Kingsley | Apr 30, 2015 | 0 Comments

Background – Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

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The plaintiff, Peggy Young, was employed as a delivery driver for the United Parcel Service (UPS) in 2006, when she requested a leave of absence in order to undergo in vitro fertilization. Following a successful procedure, Young became pregnant and her doctors advised her to not lift more than twenty pounds while working. This advice contradicted UPS's employee policy which requires their employees to be able to lift up to seventy pounds. Due to Young's inability to fulfill this work requirement, as well as the fact that she had used all her available family/medical leave, UPS forced Young to take an extended, unpaid leave of absence. During this time she eventually lost her medical coverage. Young gave birth in April 2007 and resumed working at UPS thereafter.

Young sued UPS and claimed she had been the victim of gender- and disability-based discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. UPS moved for summary judgment and argued that Young could not show that UPS's decision was based on her pregnancy or that she was treated differently than a similarly situated co-worker. UPS argued it had no obligation to offer Young accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act because Young's pregnancy did not constitute a disability. The district court dismissed Young's claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued its decision in this case. Vacating and remanding the Fourth Circuit's decision, the Court concluded that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“Act”) “requires courts to consider the extent to which an employer's policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats nonpregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work” and that there was a genuine dispute regarding “whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young's.”

Impact

Employers and employees alike are now questioning whether federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy?  According to SCOTUS, the answer is Yes, but not always.

The Court held that an interpretation of the Act that requires employers to offer the same accommodations to pregnant workers as all others with comparable physical limitations regardless of other factors would be too broad. There is no evidence that Congress intended the Act to grant pregnancy such an unconditional “most-favored-nation status.” However, Congress clearly intended the Act to do more than defining sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination. The Court held that a plaintiff may show that she faced disparate treatment from her employer according to the framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, which requires evidence that the employer's actions were more likely than not based on discriminatory motivation, and that any reasons the employer offered were pretextual.

In his opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. wrote that the language of the Act makes employers liable for discriminatory conduct regardless of intent. To determine whether the conduct was discriminatory, Justice Alito argued that the treatment of pregnant employees should be compared to the treatment of non-pregnant employees in similar jobs with similar abilities and inabilities to work.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the Act only prohibited an employer from distinguishing between employees of similar abilities and inabilities because of pregnancy, while differing treatment for other reasons is permissible. To adopt a broader reading of the Act's protections would entitle pregnant workers to every possible accommodation. Justice Scalia also argued that the Act's main intent is to clarify that pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Justice Clarence Thomas joined in the dissent. In his separate dissent, Justice Kennedy wrote that the majority opinion interpreted the Act in a manner that conflates evidence of disparate impact with that of disparate treatment, which creates unnecessary confusion in litigating pregnancy discrimination cases. (Kennedy also wrote a separate dissent emphasizing that he was not opposed to pregnancy accommodations as a matter of principle.)

Did SCOTUS provide details about what constitutes pregnancy accommodation?

The answer is not really. It's been established that inconvenience or expense is not a legitimate reason for an employer to fail to accommodate pregnancy or related conditions. The Supreme Court majority also said that courts could consider (1) whether the employer made accommodations in other types of cases but not pregnancy, and (2) whether the employer had multiple “accommodation” policies while having nothing for pregnancy.

Didn't the EEOC issue something on pregnancy accommodation last summer? Did this Supreme Court decision invalidate it?

Yes, the EEOC issued guidance on pregnancy accommodation last summer, although it's not clear if the SCOTUS decision validated it. The Young decision may not have much of a substantive effect on the EEOC's Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues, which was issued last July. The majority opinion criticized the EEOC for making a dramatic change in its prior position on pregnancy discrimination without providing an adequate explanation for the change. It also criticized the EEOC for issuing the Enforcement Guidance after the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the Young case.

But the majority did not appear to criticize the EEOC's substantive position, which is that employers are required to accommodate pregnancy and related conditions if they make any other accommodations – including ADA accommodations and offering light duty for work-related injuries.

Tips for Employers following the SCOTUS decision

Employers in a jurisdiction that already requires pregnancy accommodation should comply with all applicable state and local laws. Local laws may provide more protection to pregnant employees than federal law does. If so, then compliance with your state or local law should automatically put you in compliance under the new federal standard.

In general, employers can also take the following steps to help stay in compliance with the various laws in the wake of this decision:

  • Review policies related to light duty and reasonable accommodation requests to ensure they are in line with legitimate business needs and not based on cost and convenience.
  • Examine accommodation requests granted and denied over the recent past, and on a going forward basis, to determine if pregnant women are being treated disparately.
  • Train managers and HR professionals on the need for individualized inquires in granting or refusing requests for accommodation.

To further discuss this case, or a potential claim on your behalf, feel free to contact leading California employment lawyers at Kingsley & Kingsley. Call toll-free at (888) 500-8469 or click here to contact us via email.

About the Author

Eric Kingsley

In practice since 1996, the firm's lawyer and co-founder, Eric B. Kingsley, has litigated complex cases and written numerous appeals in state and federal courts on behalf of the California law firm Kingsley & Kingsley, including More than 150 collective actions. Mr. Kingsley focuses his practice ...

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