Advocate's Journal

Young v. UPS: The Supreme Court’s Clarification of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

By Will Jordan

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 provides that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The Act requires employers to treat women affected by pregnancy the same for employment purposes “as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion addressing the impact of this second provision of the Act.

Peggy Young was employed as a driver for UPS. When she became pregnant, her doctor instructed her that she should avoid lifting more than 20 pounds. But, UPS required its drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS informed Young that she could not work while subject to the lifting restriction. Young sued, claiming that UPS’s refusal to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction violated Title VII as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

To support her discrimination claim, Young pointed to UPS policies that accommodated workers who were injured on the job, had disabilities covered by the ADA, or had lost required DOT certifications. Under these policies, Young argued, UPS drivers who had limitations comparable to hers received accommodation while her request for accommodation was denied. Young claimed UPS’s policies were, therefore, discriminatory against pregnant workers.

The United States District Court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS, finding that the other employees with whom Young compared herself were not “similarly situated.” The Fourth Circuit agreed. The Supreme Court, however, did not.

The Supreme Court took the position that a pregnant employee who seeks to show disparate treatment may do so using the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework. Under McDonnell Douglas, the employee must first show that she was a member of the protected class (e.g., was pregnant), that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The Court noted that the burden of making this showing is “not onerous.” In response, the employer must put forth a “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason for declining the requested accommodation. If the employer is able to put forth a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the employee bears the burden of showing that the offered reason is, in fact, pretextual.

The Supreme Court held that, under the McDonnell Douglas framework, an employee claiming pregnancy discrimination can create a genuine issue of material fact by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies “impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s . . . reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather . . . give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”  The employee can create a fact issue concerning whether a significant burden exists by putting forth evidence that the employer “accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.” In the Supreme Court’s view, Young did just that. She introduced enough evidence to create a genuine issue of fact concerning whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situations cannot be distinguished from hers. As the Court explained: “[I]f the facts are as Young says they are, she can show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting restrictions.”

That fact issue will ultimately be up to a jury to decide, but employers should review their accommodation policies to ensure they are not drafted or implemented in a manner that could support a claim of pregnancy discrimination.