U.S. Supreme Court Restores Plaintiff’s Pregnancy Discrimination Claim

March 27, 2015

By: Jennifer R. Russell

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a suit by former employee Peggy Young under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k) (“PDA”), sent the issue of whether UPS had a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual justification” for treating employees differently back to the 4th Circuit.  Young claims UPS violated the PDA by improperly denying her light-duty work requested due to a doctor-recommended lifting restriction during her pregnancy.  She was not given the same light-duty accommodation as non-pregnant employees with similar limitations.  The 4th Circuit found that UPS’ refusal to accommodate was not discrimination, since Young did not prove UPS’ policies were intended to discriminate against pregnant women or resulted in different treatment.

In an opinion authored by Justice Breyer and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan on a 6-3 vote with Justice Alito concurring, the Court agreed that Congress likely did not intend to grant pregnant workers a “most-favored nation” status by requiring employers to accommodate all pregnant employees irrespective of other criteria.  The Court also recognized that employers can implement policies that are not intended to harm members of a protected class, even if implementation sometimes harms those members, as long as the employer has a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual reason for doing so.

The Court held that, if an employer presents a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, a worker can reach the jury on the issue of pretext by providing sufficient evidence (1) that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers and (2) that the employer’s 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.  The Court also explained that a plaintiff can “create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”  Applying these standards, the Court found that there is a “genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot readily be distinguished from Young’s” and that the 4th Circuit improperly affirmed summary judgment on this issue.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas, authored a disparaging dissent, questioning the source of the majority’s “significant burden” and “sufficiently strong justification” requirements and criticizing the majority for creating new law that is “splendidly unconnected with the text and even the legislative history of the Act.”

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