U.S. Supreme Court Interprets Title VII’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act; Vacates Judgment Against Pregnant Employee

In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1338 (March 25, 2015), the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted and applied a portion of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act relating to accommodations that covered employers must make to pregnant workers.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to clarify that “‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions”. It also provides, in its second clause, that

women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall 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.

The Supreme Court was called upon to “decide how this … provision applies in the context of an employer’s policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with nonpregnancy-related disabilities.”

Here are the facts of Young, as summarized by the Court:

The petitioner, Peggy Young, worked as a part-time driver for the respondent, United Parcel Service (UPS). Her responsibilities included pickup and delivery of packages that had arrived by air carrier the previous night. In 2006, after suffering several miscarriages, she became pregnant. Her doctor told her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS required drivers like Young to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds (and up to 150 pounds with assistance). UPS told Young she could not work while under a lifting restriction. Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

Young sued, arguing that UPS violated the law by “refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction.” UPS argued that it accommodated “other persons” in three categories: “(1) drivers who had become disabled on the job, (2) those who had lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications, and (3) those who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990(ADA).” Since, UPS argued, Young did not fall within any of these categories, it did not discriminate against Young “on the basis of pregnancy but had treated her just as it treated all ‘other’ relevant ‘persons.'”

Defendant moved for summary judgment, the district court granted the motion, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated that decision.

After discussing and analyzing the parties’ positions and its own precedent, the Court outlined its interpretation – notably declining to adopt either party’s interpretation – of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Here is the crux of the Court’s opinion:

In our view, an individual pregnant worker who seeks to show disparate treatment through indirect evidence may do so through application of the McDonnell Douglas framework. That framework requires a plaintiff to make out a prima facie case of discrimination. … [A]n individual plaintiff may establish a prima facie case by “showing actions taken by the employer from which one can infer, if such actions remain unexplained, that it is more likely than not that such actions were based on a discriminatory criterion illegal under” Title VII. The burden of making this showing is “not onerous.” [M]aking this showing is not as burdensome as succeeding on “an ultimate finding of fact as to” a discriminatory employment action. Neither does it require the plaintiff to show that those whom the employer favored and those whom the employer disfavored were similar in all but the protected ways. … .

Thus, a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing, as in McDonnell Douglas, that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying her accommodation. But, consistent with the Act’s basic objective, that reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (“similar in their ability or inability to work”) whom the employer accommodates. After all, the employer in Gilbert could in all likelihood have made just such a claim.

If the employer offers an apparently “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason for its actions, the plaintiff may in turn show that the employer’s proffered reasons are in fact pretextual. We believe that the plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” 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 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. Here, for example, if 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 limitations. Young might also add that the fact that UPS has multiple policies that accommodate nonpregnant employees with lifting restrictions suggests that its reasons for failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting restrictions are not sufficiently strong—to the point that a jury could find that its reasons for failing to accommodate pregnant employees give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.

This approach, though limited to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act context, is consistent with our longstanding rule that a plaintiff can use circumstantial proof to rebut an employer’s apparently legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for treating individuals within a protected class differently than those outside the protected class. In particular, it is hardly anomalous that a plaintiff may rebut an employer’s proffered justifications by showing how a policy operates in practice. In McDonnell Douglas itself, we noted that an employer’s “general policy and practice with respect to minority employment”—including “statistics as to” that policy and practice—could be evidence of pretext. Moreover, the continued focus on whether the plaintiff has introduced sufficient evidence to give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination avoids confusing the disparate-treatment and disparate-impact doctrines.

Applying the law, the Court concluded:

Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s. In other words, Young created a genuine dispute of material fact as to the fourth prong of the McDonnell Douglas analysis.

It was careful to note, however that it did “not determine whether Young created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’ reasons for having treated Young less favorably than it treated these other nonpregnant employees were pretextual, and left “a final determination of that question for the Fourth Circuit to make on remand, in light of the interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that we have set out above.”

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