Supreme Court Invalidates EEOC Guidance, Further Muddies The Waters With Regard To Pregnancy Discrimination Act Compliance

Authored by Whitney P. Cooney

Mar 26, 2015

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated ruling in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. __ (2015) and, in doing so, fashioned a “middle of the road” standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims that will likely create more questions than answers.

By way of background, the plaintiff, Peggy Young, was a UPS driver who became pregnant and was placed on a 20 lb. lifting restriction by her doctor. Because UPS drivers were required to lift 70 lbs., UPS placed Young on an unpaid leave of absence, which ultimately led to her loss of health insurance coverage. Young alleged other drivers would have assisted her with heavy packages and that UPS’s denial of accommodations that would have allowed her to continue working throughout her pregnancy violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). As a basis for her claim, Young asserted that UPS routinely accommodated non-pregnant employees in the following circumstances: 1) employees suffering from work-related injuries; 2) employees who have disabilities within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and 3) employees whose DOT certifications lapsed due to health-related reasons. It should be noted that UPS was obligated to provide accommodations in these three instances by virtue of its collective bargaining agreement.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals granted summary judgment to UPS on the basis that the PDA only requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work,” finding that UPS’s policy of accommodating employees only in certain situations was sufficiently neutral. While the matter was pending before the Supreme Court, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC guidance in July 2014 in an effort to clarify its position. See 2 EEOC Compliance Manual § 626-I(A)(5), p. 626:0009 (July 2014). In its guidance, the EEOC asserted that employers may not deny light duty work to a pregnant employee based on a policy limiting light duty work to employees suffering from work-related injuries.

In Young, the Supreme Court ultimately rejected both parties’ positions. It determined the arguments advanced by Young, and supported by the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance, would provide too much preferential treatment to pregnant employees, while UPS’s interpretation would be inconsistent with the intent expressed by Congress in enacting the PDA. Accordingly, the Court refined the framework for evaluating such claims in a manner meant to reconcile the parties’ opposing views. Employees may establish a PDA violation by showing: (1) they sought accommodation; (2) their employer denied accommodations; and (3) the employer granted accommodations to other employees similar in their inability to work. The employer must then offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying accommodations, which the employee must then prove to be pretextual. The Court observed that employees may reach a jury by providing evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden upon pregnant employees and the employer’s reasons for denying accommodations are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden. Importantly, Young makes it clear the increased cost and inconvenience associated with providing accommodations to pregnant employees is not the sort of burden that would justify the denial of such accommodations.

The takeaway from Young is that there is no bright-line rule regarding when and to what extent employers must accommodate pregnant employees. Rather, as with the availability of accommodations granted under the ADA, the analysis will be highly fact specific and vary according to each employer’s particular circumstances. Furthermore, Young makes it abundantly clear that it will be difficult for employers to obtain summary judgment in pregnancy accommodation cases. So, even when employers have a legitimate basis for denying accommodations, they may nonetheless face lengthy and costly litigation. Due to the complexity of the legal issues involved, employers should consult with legal counsel when faced with pregnancy accommodation issues.

If you have any questions about employee accommodations, please do not hesitate to contact Whitney Cooney.

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