The United States Supreme Court Issues New Test for Determining Pregnancy Discrimination Claims in the Workplace

Wednesday, 08 April 2015 20:27 Written by  Michael Klimpl

Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) prohibits, among other matters, a covered employer, from discriminating against an employee because of such individual’s sex.  Generally, a private employer with 15 or more employees, engaging in interstate commerce, is covered by Title VII.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) passed in 1978, added discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” to this prohibition.

The PDA also provides that employers are required to 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” .

In the recent case of Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court, in interpreting the provision above, announced a new test for analyzing pregnancy discrimination claims. The relevant facts of the case are as follows:

Plaintiff Young worked as a part-time driver for defendant United Parcel Service (UPS). Her duties included pickup and delivery of packages. While employed by UPS she became pregnant and was told by her doctor that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during her first 20 weeks of pregnancy and no more than 10 pounds thereafter. Drivers in Young’s position were required to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS therefore advised Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. As a result Young remained home without pay during most of her pregnancy and ultimately lost her employee medical coverage.

Young’s lawsuit against UPS claimed that the Company acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her lifting restriction, which she asserted was related to her pregnancy. She stated that UPS accommodated other drivers who were “similar in their … inability to work”.

UPS responded that the “other persons” it had accommodated were drivers disabled on the job, drivers who had lost Department of Transportation certifications, and those who had a disability as defined by the American with Disabilities Act. UPS therefore claimed it had not discriminated against Young because she did not fall within any of the three categories listed above.

The federal District Court granted summary judgment for the UPS and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case.

The United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and drawing from the standards it employs for other categories of employment discrimination, set forth the test for determining whether an employee claiming pregnancy discrimination has made out a prima facie case (meaning the matter can go before a jury-or judge serving as fact-finder- to make the ultimate determination as to whether the employee was unlawfully discriminated against). Specifically, an employee claiming pregnancy discrimination must initially show that she belongs to the protected class (that is an individual covered by the PDA), that her employer denied a requested accommodation and that the employer accommodated others “similar in their ability or inability to work”.

The employer may then seek to justify its action based on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons. Convenience or expense is not normally considered an appropriate reason.

If the employer can offer a seemingly “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason for denying the requested accommodation, the employee is then given the opportunity to show that the employer’s reasons are a pretext for discrimination.

Assuming the employee can offer sufficient evidence to satisfy these initial requirements, the employee is entitled to have a jury decide the ultimate issue of pregnancy discrimination.

Because the lower courts had not applied this test to pregnancy claims, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower courts which had dismissed the case, and directed that the Court of Appeals determine whether Young had made out a prima facie case of discrimination.

The full effects of this decision will not be known until the lower courts and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) have had a chance to apply the Supreme Court’s test to specific fact situations and in the case of the EEOC to draft and issue new regulations and guidance. In addition, after Young’s claim arose, the American Disabilities Act was amended and expanded the definition of “disability” to include “physical or mental impairment[s] that substantially limi[t]” an individual’s ability to lift, stand or bend. The EEOC interpreted these changes to included temporary lifting restrictions, originating off the job. The Supreme Court declined to express a view on these changes as they were not strictly relevant to the matter before it.

While awaiting the potential impact of this case, employers should review their employment policies, handbooks and employee manuals -specifically with respect to pregnancy accommodations.

Last modified on Monday, 11 May 2015 16:21
Michael Klimpl

Michael Klimpl

Michael’s practice areas include Real Estate, Municipal Law, Zoning and Land Use, Employment Law, Civil Litigation, Estate Planning and Estate Administration, with a concentration in the areas of employment law, estate planning and administration, and transactional law.

To view Michael Klimpl's full bio, click here.

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