In Young v. UPS, a 6 to 3 Supreme Court majority vacated a Fourth Circuit decision upholding a District Court decision granting UPS summary judgment and supported a driver’s pregnancy discrimination claims. The Court resolved a Circuit split regarding employers’ duty to accommodate pregnancy-related limitations. Justice Breyer, writing for the Court, explained that Young demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’s facially neutral reasons for not accommodating her were a pretext for pregnancy discrimination. Only Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy dissented.
I. Young’s Story
Young worked as a part-time delivery driver for UPS. She became pregnant in fall 2006, and 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. With this lifting restriction, UPS told her that she could not work during her pregnancy because UPS required drivers to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds (and up to 150 pounds with assistance). UPS also told her that she was not qualified for a temporary alternative work assignment even though UPS promised to provide temporary alternative work assignments to employees who were injured at work based on a collective bargaining agreement. Young, as a result, stayed home and remained on a leave of absence without pay during most of her pregnancy, and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.
Young sued UPS, claiming that UPS discriminated against her by failing to accommodate her during her pregnancy. UPS filed a motion for summary judgement, arguing that there is no duty to accommodate pregnancy, and that Young did not fit into any of the three categories of drivers UPS would accommodate under its company policy: (1) those who injured at work; (2) those who 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). In reply, Young proffered the following facts she believed she could prove to support her claims. First, her co-workers were willing to help her with heavy packages, but UPS denied this as an accommodation. Second, UPS accommodated other drivers who suffered disabilities that created work restrictions similar to hers. Third, a UPS shop steward who had worked for UPS for roughly a decade testified in his deposition that “the only light duty requested restrictions that became an issue” at UPS “were with women who were pregnant.”
II. Holdings of the District Court and the Fourth Circuit
The District Court granted UPS’ motion for summary judgment. It reached two conclusions. First, Young could not show intentional discrimination through direct evidence merely based on the fact that UPS denied her accommodation requests and approved of accommodating others. Second, Young could not make out a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination under McDonnell Douglas because those drivers who were accommodated by UPS (on-the job injuries, DOT or ADA categories) and Young were too different to be deemed similarly situated. In short, the District Court treated UPS’ reliance on its three-category facially neutral policy as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to accommodate Young. The District Court found that Young created no genuine issue of material fact as to whether UPS’s reason was pretextual. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s findings.
III. The U.S. Supreme Court
A. Disputes over Interpretations of the Second Clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) under Title VII
Young filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of the PDA under Title VII, and the Supreme Court granted her petition. The focus of the dispute was the PDA’s second clause: “Women 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.” Young contended that a court, under the second clause of the PDA, should find a Title VII violation whenever a pregnant worker is not accommodated as other workers who have similar inability to work. UPS, in contrast, maintained that the second clause merely incorporated pregnancy discrimination into the ban on sex discrimination, and held that courts should compare accommodations a pregnant worker receives with those received by other workers within a facially neutral policy.
Justice Breyer, in the majority opinion, while denying pregnant women have an unconditional “most-favored-nation” status under the PDA and while refusing to give special weight to the EEOC’s 2014 guidelines supporting Young’s interpretation, held that UPS’s interpretation failed to carry out Congress’ objectives in the PDA. First, UPS’s interpretation would render the second clause of the PDA superfluous because the first clause of the PDA already defined pregnancy discrimination as a kind of sex discrimination. Second, accepting UPS’s interpretation (followed by the dissent) would revive the Court’s decision under General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976) — one that the Congress passed the PDA to overturn. The employer’s plan in Gilbert was similar to the UPS’s facially neutral accommodation policy. The Gilbert employer plan “provided non-occupational sickness and accident benefits to all employees without providing disability benefit payments for any absence due to pregnancy,” and thus did not violate Title VII, because pregnancy was neither a disease nor necessarily a result of accident. Justice Breyer, invoking California Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. Guerra, 479 U.S. 272 (1979), emphasized that the first clause of the PDA reflected the Congress’ disapproval of the reasoning in Gilbert by expressly adding pregnancy to the definition of Title VII’s sex discrimination, while the second clause was intended to overrule the holding of Gilbert and to illustrate how pregnancy discrimination could be remedied.
B. Applying the McDonnell Douglas Framework Under the Second Clause of the PDA to Young’s Case
Justice Breyer clarified the McDonnell Douglas framework under which pregnant workers, when being denied an accommodation under the PDA’s second clause, could show disparate treatment through indirect evidence. To make out a prima facie case, the pregnant worker must show: (1) that she belongs to the protected class (pregnancy); (2) that she sought accommodation; (3) that the employer did not accommodate her, and (4) that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Then, the burden of proof shifts to the employer and the employer could justify its refusal to accommodate her by showing “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reasons. To rebut the employer’s justifications, the pregnant worker may in turn show that the employer’s proffered reasons are in fact pretextual through two steps. First, the pregnant worker can provide sufficient evidence showing that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers. Second, the pregnant worker can further demonstrate that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden. After the pregnant worker meets the above evidentiary standards, an inference of intentional discrimination may arise. For example, when the pregnant worker provides evidence demonstrating that the employer accommodated a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers, this creates a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden is imposed upon pregnant workers.
Applying the clarified framework and viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, Justice Breyer held that Young created a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from hers. Also, the Fourth Circuit failed to consider whether UPS’s three-category policy significantly burdened pregnant women and whether UPS’s justifications were strong enough to justify such a burden. The lower courts, on remand, will need to determine whether Young created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether UPS’s reasons were pretextual.
Justice Alito concurred with the majority and held that UPS’ justifications for differentiating drivers in the three categories of accommodated workers were not clear enough to justify their decision to treat pregnant drivers less favorably.
If you believe that your employer imposed an unjustifiable burden upon you during your pregnancy, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law.
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