Proving pregnancy discrimination
A new way to prove pregnancy discrimination.
On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court established a new standard for proving discrimination against pregnant employees. In Young v. UPS (U.S. 2015) 191 L. Ed. 2d 279, the high court had to decide how the federal employment discrimination law (Title VII) applies in the context of an employer’s policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with nonpregnancy-related disabilities.
The portion of Title VII that the Supreme Court interpreted is: “[W]omen affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” Ms. Young asserted that this language requires an employer to provide the same accommodations to workplace disabilities caused by pregnancy that it provides to workplace disabilities that have other causes but have a similar effect on the ability to work. UPS contended that the clause requires a comparison of the accommodations an employer provides to pregnant women with the accommodations it provides to others within a facially neutral category (such as those with off-the-job injuries) to determine whether the employer has violated Title VII.
The high court rejected both parties’ interpretations. Instead, it concluded that a pregnant employee alleging that the denial of an accommodation is a violation of Title VII may reach a jury by providing sufficient evidence that (1) the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and (2) that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons offered by the employer are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden. The Supreme Court determined that a significant burden exists when the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.
In the case at hand, the high court indicated that Ms. Young could show a significant burden based on the following facts. After Ms. Young became pregnant, her doctor recommended that she not lift objects greater than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and not greater than 10 pounds thereafter. UPS required its drivers, including Ms. Young, to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds. UPS told Ms. Young she could not work during her pregnancy, and that it could not offer her a temporary alternative work assignment. But other UPS employees received accommodations while suffering similar or more serious disabilities incurred on the job, and several employees received “inside” jobs after losing their driving certifications. The Supreme Court noted that Ms. Young could show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.
The Supreme Court stated that this method of proof is limited to a pregnancy discrimination claim context. Nevertheless, this decision provides guidance to employees with such claims.