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Supreme Court Rules in Pregnancy Discrimination Case

Tags:  (2015 Mar 25th)

In a 6 to 3 case, the Supreme Court, in Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS), ruled against UPS and remanded the case back to the 4th Circuit for resolution, under the pregnancy discrimination standard announced by the court. Justice Breyer writing for the court said “a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing … that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others "similar in their ability or inability to work.”"

Young was a pregnant part-time driver for UPS, who after previous difficult pregnancies, was informed by her doctor that she could not lift more than 20 pounds. UPS drivers are required to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. Young asked for an accommodation, but UPS denied her request because UPS only grants disability accommodations to workers who are injured on the job, qualify as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, have lost their Department of Transportation certifications, or have been involved in car accident. The question before the court was whether an employer’s policy that accommodates most, but not all, employees is discriminatory against pregnant workers.

In General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy did not constitute sex discrimination within the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In response, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which provides that discriminating on the basis of pregnancy is sex discrimination and that employers have to treat pregnant workers the same as other workers who can handle the same kind of job. The court in Young sought to clarify this second provision.

Although the Court ruled in favor of Young, the Court rejected both sides’ arguments and came up with a balancing test applicable to claims of intentional discrimination based on a refusal to accommodate pregnancy. Under the new standard, a plaintiff can show intentional discrimination by (1) proving that the employer’s policy on not making an accommodation imposes a “significant burden” on pregnant workers and (2) the reasons for the policy are not “sufficiently strong to justify the burden.” The Court did not rule whether UPS’s policy was intentionally discriminatory towards pregnant workers. The Court also gave no credibility to the EEOC’s pregnancy discrimination guidelines that the commission introduced after the Court had already agreed to hear the case.

Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas dissented. The dissent criticized the majority for ignoring the plain language of the PDA and confusing “disparate impact with disparate treatment by permitting a plaintiff to use a pregnancy-neutral policy’s disproportionate burden on pregnant employees as evidence of pretext.”

Full text of the Court's decision