Supreme Court Speaks on Pregnancy Accommodation

supreme court sealOver the next couple of days, we are catching up on some recent developments.  The first one we are going to discuss is the long-awaited decision by the Supreme Court inYoung v. UPS.

In Young, a pregnant employee requested light duty as an accommodation under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).  The PDA is a subsection of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires employers to treat “women affected by pregnancy…the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The plaintiff argued that she should have been given light duty because the defendant, UPS, gave light duty assignments to employees with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), those with workplace injuries, and those who had lost Department of Transportation (“DOT”) certifications.  UPS argued that it did not act unlawfully because it treated the plaintiff the same way it treated any other employee with physical limitations who did not meet UPS’ requirements for light duty — i.e., who did not have a disability under the ADA, did not have a workplace injury, and had not lost DOT certifications.

In its decision on March 25, 2015, the Court set out a new standard for assessing accommodation claims under the PDA. The Court held that a pregnant employee can make a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination by showing that she requested an accommodation, that her request was denied, and that others similar in their ability or inability to work have been accommodated.  At that point, the employer must show that it had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for accommodating other employees but not the pregnant employee.  The burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s reasons are pretexts for discrimination or that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant employees which outweighs the employer’s reasons for the policies.

Although the decision did not go as far as some advocates for pregnant employees would have liked, it undoubtedly makes it easier for pregnant employees to bring claims under the PDA. Going forward, employers will be risking litigation if they reserve light duty assignments or other accommodations for only certain classes of employees, at least without a compelling justification for excluding pregnant employees.   In light of this, employers should review their policies and practices regarding pregnancy-related accommodations for consistency.  All requests for accommodation should be taken seriously and employers should gather as much information as possible in evaluating each individual request. Doing so may reduce the likelihood of future pregnancy-related claims, as well as protect employers from potential liability.

For the full decision in Young v. UPS, visit www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/slipopinions.aspx.

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