Pregnancy Discrimination: The Supreme Court Speaks

On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States answered the following question: Does the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 require an employer that offers accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide accommodations to pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work,” and if so, under what circumstances?  In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc, the High Court considered the plight of Peggy Young, a part-time driver for UPS. The company required that all driv­ers be able to lift up to 70 pounds (and up to 150 pounds with assistance). Young became pregnant and because of several previous miscarriages, her physician advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS did not allow Young to work at all during her pregnancy, which caused her to lose substantial pay and ultimately, her medical coverage.

In her federal lawsuit, Young claimed that UPS had accommodated other drivers who were “similar in their . . . inability to work” and, in addition, that her co-workers were willing to help her with heavy packages. UPS responded that the “other persons” whom it had accommodated were employees who had become disabled on the job, lost their Department of Transportation certifications, or suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Since Young did not fall within any of those categories, UPS maintained, the company had not discriminated against her based upon pregnancy but rather, had treated her just as it had all “other” relevant “persons.”

The lower court dismissed Young’s case pursuant to UPS’s motion (i.e., formal request) and an appeals court affirmed.  Both concluded that the employees to whom Young had compared herself were too different to qualify as “similarly situated comparator[s].” Writing for a 6-3 majority, Supreme Court Associate Justice Breyer noted that the Act 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 query, he stated, is how the above-quoted provision applies in the context of an em­ployer’s policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with non pregnancy-related disabilities. In the High Court’s view, the Act requires courts to consider the extent to which an employer’s policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats non-pregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work.

The Young Decision stands for the proposition that there may be some situations in which employers can accommodate some groups of employees without also accommodating pregnant employees.  But the Court articulated a high legal burden that employers will have to meet in order to justify their policies or practices that provide accommodations to some categories of employees, but not to pregnant women.