On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., laying the groundwork for a substantial expansion upon the rights of employees under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), Americans with Disabilities Act as Amended (“ADAA”) and worker’s compensation statutes.  Many employers have adopted separate, sometimes significantly distinguishable, policies outlining the accommodations given to employees injured at work, employees with a disability under the ADAA, and pregnant employees.  At the recommendation of a physician, employees injured at work are frequently permitted to return to work prior to full recovery to a light duty position or status.  This is not always the case with individuals requiring accommodations due to non-work related disability or pregnancy.  These policies are potentially discriminatory in light of Young v. UPS.

Young was a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (“UPS”).  When Young became pregnant, her physician advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds.  UPS, however, required its drivers to lift up to 70 pounds.  As a result of her lifting restriction, UPS told Young she could not work, placing her on unpaid leave, until the restriction was lifted.  Pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement, UPS offered alternative job assignments to (1) employees injured on the job, (2) employees who have a permanent disability under the ADAA, and (3) drivers who have lost their Department of Transportation certification.  Employees injured at work or who suffer from a qualified disability requiring accommodation were offered light duty positions.  Employees who have lost their certification were offered an “inside job” which was not typically considered light duty.  In contrast, pregnant employees were ineligible for light duty assignments based solely on their pregnancy.  As a result, Young brought a discrimination claim under the PDA alleging that UPS failed to grant her a light duty accommodation given to other similarly situated employees.

On summary judgment, Young argued that she was treated less favorably that her co-workers who had similar lifting restrictions, but were injured on the job or had a permanent disability under the ADAA. In response, UPS asserted that because Young did not fall within any of the above three categories, it had not discriminated against her and had merely treated her as it did all other employees.  In its decision, the District Court granted UPS summary judgment stating that “those with whom Young compared herself—those falling within the on-the-job, DOT, or ADA categories – were too different to qualify as ‘similarly situated comparator[s].’”  Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. ___, 8 (2015).  The Fourth Circuit affirmed, also stating that “UPS has crafted a pregnancy-blind policy” that appears to be a “neutral and legitimate business practice.” 707 F.3d 437, 446 (2013).

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the second clause of the PDA which 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.”  42 U.S.C. §2000e(k).

Utilizing the McDonnell Douglas framework, used in gender discrimination cases, the Court established a new test for purposes of the PDA.  To meet her initial burden of proof, a pregnant employee must demonstrate that (1) she belongs to the protected class, (2) she sought accommodation, (3) the employer did not accommodate her, and (4) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Once an employee has done so, the employer may put forth a “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason for its denial of the accommodation.  If an employer does so, the employee may still succeed

by providing  sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, non-discriminatory’ 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.

Young, 575 U.S. at 21.  In other words, when the burden imposed upon pregnant employees outweighs the employment rationale, the policy will not justify the burden imposed and there is an inference of intentional discrimination.


Practical Impact

 It should be noted that Young brought only a disparate-treatment claim of discrimination under the PDA. She did not bring a claim under the ADAA. Thus, although potentially unnecessary in light of Young, pregnant employees should also consider recasting their claims for coverage under the ADAA.

Employers, on the other hand, should carefully reevaluate their current policies and practices to ensure they are compliant and should evaluate all requests for accommodations from any employee carefully, particularly pregnant employees.

It remains to be seen how far reaching the impact of this case will become, but we believe its rulings may impact numerous claim, including the PDA, the ADAA and other federal and state discrimination claims.