Supreme Court Gives Pregnant UPS Employee Opportunity to Prove Discrimination

Late last year, PK Law reported on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal’s case in Young v. United Parcel Service, 707 F.3d 437 (2013).  On March 25th, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case (USSC Docket No. 12-1226).

To recap the facts, Peggy Young was a part-time driver for UPS.  She became pregnant after several miscarriages and, therefore, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy nor more than 10 pounds thereafter.  UPS required drivers holding Young’s position to lift up to 70 pounds alone and up to 150 pounds with assistance.  Young advised UPS that she could not work while under the medical weight lifting restriction.  As a result, she remained predominantly at home during her pregnancy and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.  Young asserted her co-workers were willing to assist her and claimed that UPS accommodated other drivers who were “similar in their inability to work.”

Young filed suit under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) alleging that UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction.  She asserted that UPS must accommodate her as it did with those who were “similar in their inability to work.”

UPS responded that those similarly situated persons were (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”).  UPS asserted that since Young did not fall within any of those categories, it did not discriminate against her but treated her just as it treated all “other” relevant “persons.”

The case represents a “disparate-treatment” claim.  To quote the Court: “…a claim that an employer intentionally treated a complainant less favorably than employees with the “complainant’s qualifications” but outside the complainant’s protected class.”

The process in such cases is that a complainant must first establish a case of discrimination.  The employer may then assert a “non-discriminatory reason” for the alleged disparate treatment.  If such a reason is forthcoming then the complainant may show by a preponderance of the evidence that the articulated reason is not the true reason, but, rather, “…a pretext for discrimination.”

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found the policy of UPS “pregnancy blind” and facially a “neutral and legitimate business practice.”  It concluded that “similarly situated employees outside the protected class” did not receive “more favorable treatment than Young.”  Young was different in that she was not disabled under the ADA since her lifting restriction was “temporary and not a significant restriction on her ability to perform major life activities.”  She was different in that her restriction was not a loss of DOT certification.  And she was different because her inability to work was not the result of an “on-the-job injury.”  As a result she fell into that pool of employees who would not be eligible for accommodation under UPS’ policies.

The Court acknowledges early on that statutory and regulatory changes made after the time Young’s case arose may limit the import of its ruling.  The Court expresses no view on those changes.

In essence, Young asserted that pregnant workers should receive accommodations even if non-pregnant workers do not receive accommodations.  UPS contended that a court must compare accommodations an employer provides to pregnant women with those provided to others within a “facially neutral category (such as those with off-the-job injuries) to determine whether the employer” discriminated against the pregnant worker.

The Court rejected both of the parties’ positions.  Instead the Court felt the proper test was the “disparate treatment” and acknowledged the approach, limited to the PDA context, is “consistent with its 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.”

The judgment of the 4th Circuit was vacated and the case remanded for the gathering of evidence under the test outlined by the Supreme Court.  Three justices dissented and one concurred in the result based upon different reasoning.

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