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Supreme Court Makes It Tougher to Deny Pregnant Employees Light Duty

Due to a recent Supreme Court ruling, employers must tread more carefully when denying light duty or other work accommodations to pregnant employees.
In Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court determined that a pregnant employee could establish an initial case of discrimination by showing: (1) that she belonged to a protected class, which in this case means that she was affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; (2) that she sought a work accommodation; (3) that the employer did not accommodate her; and, (4) that the employer accommodated others similar in their ability or inability to work.  After the employee proves these elements, the employer must prove a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for denying the accommodation.  If the employer can prove a good reason, the pregnant employee must prove “the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers,” and the employer’s reasons are “not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.
The Supreme Court’s decision is grounded in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions.  The Act also requires employers 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.”  The Supreme Court’s decision attempted to clarify this requirement that employers treat pregnant workers similar to other employees.
The case centered on Peggy Young, a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (“UPS”).  In 2006, Ms. Young became pregnant. As a result, her doctor advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks and no more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS required its drivers to lift parcels up to 70 pounds by themselves and up to 150 pounds with someone else.  UPS told Young that she couldn’t work so long as she was under the doctor’s lifting restrictions.
Young sued UPS, alleging a violation of the PDA.  In her lawsuit, she claimed that other UPS employees were willing to assist her with heavy packages and that UPS accommodated other employees similar in their inability to work.  UPS responded that the “other persons” whom it had accommodated were: (1) drivers who had become disabled on the job; (2) those who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications; and, (3) those who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Since Young did not fall within any of these categories, UPS did not offer Young any accommodations.
The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where the Court focused its decision on the following question: “Whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act . . . requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’”  To answer this question, as noted above, the Court implemented the burden shifting framework that is in place for other Title VII discrimination cases.
With this new legal framework in place, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court to decide whether UPS had discriminated against Young.  In remanding the case, the Court noted that Young had established a prima facie case of discrimination because: (1) Young was pregnant; (2) she sought an accommodation; (3) the employer did not accommodate her; and, (4) UPS offered accommodations for other employees in three different situations.  Now, it is up to the lower court to determine whether UPS had a legitimate reason for only providing accommodations to workers who fell under one of its three designated categories.  If the lower court finds that UPS had a legitimate reason, then that court will shift the burden back to Young and require her to prove that UPS’s reason was pretextual.
We will keep you posted on the ultimate outcome of the case.  However, employers should know that it is now more difficult to deny pregnant employees light duty or other work accommodations.  As a result, employers should act carefully when evaluating a pregnant employee’s light duty request.
If you have questions about this case, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in general, or about offering light duty, contact a member of MacDonald Illig’s Labor and Employment Practice Group.