Supreme Court’s Decision – Requires Employers to Review and Update Policies
On March 25, 2015, in the case of Young v United Parcel Svc., Inc., ___ U.S.___ (2015), the United States Supreme Court expanded the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) to require employers to accommodate employees with work restrictions due to pregnancy.
Young worked for UPS in a position that required heavy lifting. After she became pregnant, she was restricted to lifting only 20 lbs., which was later reduced to only 10 lbs. UPS had various light duty policies, and a collective bargaining agreement in place which allowed employees to return to work while on restricted duty for various reasons, but none included pregnancy. When she was denied the accommodation of having the policies apply to her, she sued, claiming that, because the PDA requires employers to treat pregnant employees “the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work,” UPS discriminated against her.
Following established precedent, the district court granted summary judgment to UPS, and the court of appeals affirmed, holding that UPS’s policies were “pregnancy-blind” and non-discriminatory.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Initially, the Court appears to have expanded the types of employees to whom a pregnant employee many be compared to include all others “similar in their ability or inability to work”. Thus, the Court appears to discount various other distinguishing reasons that might exist for differing treatment.
Importantly, at least for PDA claim purposes, the Court appears to dispense with the distinction between disparate impact claims and claims of intentional discrimination against pregnant women–disparate treatment. Under a traditional disparate impact claim, a neutral policy may be found to be discriminatory due to its effect on protected groups, but the only relief available is injunctive relief. Although the Court specifically noted that Young did not bring a disparate impact claim, it concluded that an employee may establish a claim of disparate treatment by showing only that a facially neutral policy imposes a significant burden on pregnant workers, as compared to non-pregnant workers; thus, opening the door to money damages.
Because the Court sent the case back to the trial court, the true impact of the Court’s ruling may have to be tested by further factual development. Notably, in this case, UPS’s policies did not limit light duty opportunities to only those who suffered work-related injuries. Instead, the Court noted that, under those policies, employees who suffer no work-related condition could be accommodated, but pregnant women could not. Consequently, it may be that policies which reserve light duty assignments for workers who are injured on the job could pass muster. However, employers who take this position may do so at their own peril. As noted by the Supreme Court, this case arose before the 2009 amendments to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which expanded the definition of disabled persons. So, even if a future decision would allow a distinction between work related and non-work related injuries for limited duty opportunities under the PDA, the Court has signaled that an accommodation may nevertheless be required under the ADA. A copy of the Supreme Court’s decision can be found at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/12-1226_k5fl.pdf
 The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) provides, in relevant part, that “women affected by pregnancy” should “be treated . . . the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work . . ..”