April 3, 2015

Supreme Court Clarifies Framework for Proving Discrimination Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Supreme Court recently clarified the framework that applies to certain claims for accommodations under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (the “PDA”). The case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., was a partial victory for both employees and employers. The Court explained that employees may be more likely to avoid dismissal before trial on these types of claims going forward, but it rejected the more employee-favorable interpretation of the PDA that the plaintiff and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advocated.

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court overturned a Fourth Circuit decision, which had affirmed summary judgment for an employer in a discrimination claim under the PDA. The Court remanded the case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., to determine whether the employer’s failure to accommodate a pregnant worker with light duty assignments constituted unlawful discrimination.

In Young, the employer maintained a light duty policy, whereby workers who incurred injuries on the job would be relieved from the normal work requirement of being able to lift 70 pounds. The plaintiff, who was advised by her doctor to not lift more than 20 pounds, was denied light duty assignments under her employer’s policy.  She argued that the PDA required that she receive the same opportunity for light duty assignments as the employer gave to nonpregnant workers, regardless of whether they were accommodated due to on the job injuries, Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) needs, or Department of Transportation requirements.

Young is significant for at least three reasons, despite the fact that the Court did not decide the ultimate issue in the case.

First, Young clarified that an individual pregnant worker who seeks to prove discrimination through indirect evidence—such as through the application of a facially neutral policy—may do so through application of the McDonnell Douglas framework. Applying the McDonnell Douglas framework to the PDA, a pregnant worker makes a prima facie case by showing that she sought accommodation, her employer did not accommodate her, and the employer accommodated others similarly situated in their ability or inability to work.  The burden then shifts to the employer to demonstrate legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for refusing to accommodate the pregnant worker. Here, the Court explained that an employer will not satisfy its burden simply by claiming that it is “more expensive or less convenient” to add pregnant workers to the category of those whom the employer accommodates. If the employer offers legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its refusal to accommodate the pregnant worker, the pregnant worker may in turn show that that those reasons are merely pretext for intentional discrimination. 

The Court held that a pregnant worker can avoid dismissal before trial on the issue of pretext 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.” The Court explained that this burden would be satisfied if an employer accommodates a “large percentage of nonpregnant workers” under a policy “while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.” Because the employer in Young accommodated “at least some” nonpregnant workers who were similar to the plaintiff in their inability to work, the Court found that a genuine issue of material fact existed on the issue of pretext and, as such, summary judgment for the employer was not warranted.

Second, Young rejected the plaintiff’s employee-friendly interpretation of the second clause of the PDA. The second clause of the PDA states, “[W]omen affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not affected but similar in their ability to work.” The plaintiff argued that so long as an employer accommodates any subset of workers with nonpregnancy-related disability conditions, pregnant workers who are similar in their inability to work must receive the same treatment even if still other nonpregnant workers do not receive accommodations. According to the Court, the plaintiff’s interpretation would inappropriately grant pregnant workers “most-favored-nation” status in the workforce, contrary to Congressional intention.     

Third, Young severely limited the impact of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s July 2014 PDA guidance (previously covered here). The Court faulted the guidance for its inconsistency with prior agency interpretations and a lack of thoroughness in its analysis. Going forward, courts will likely not give substantial weight to the EEOC guidance as a roadmap in analyzing PDA claims.

The Court noted, however, that its interpretation of the PDA may have limited significance due to the 2008 amendments to the ADA, which occurred after the time of the plaintiff’s pregnancy in Young. In those amendments, Congress expanded the definition of “disability” to include impairments that substantially limit an individual’s ability to lift, stand, or bend. Accordingly, a pregnant worker who is denied a light duty accommodation would likely be able to pursue claims under both the PDA and ADA.

Employers should ensure that their facially neutral policies are not being applied in a manner that treats pregnant workers significantly differently than similarly restricted nonpregnant workers, at least not without substantial reasons for doing so. Employers will be less likely to prevail at the summary judgment stage in cases involving claims for accommodations by pregnant workers. Courts will be required to examine evidence concerncing employers' treatment of pregnant and nonpregnant workers who request accommodations, including whether an employer’s policy accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.