U.S. Supreme Court Provides Guidance on Pregnancy-Related Accommodations

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., involving whether accommodations are required for pregnant employees. Young brought suit against UPS for failing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. In this case, the employee claimed that UPS accommodated most non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions and categorically denied the same accommodation to pregnant workers. UPS had policies that accommodated other workers such as those injured on the job, those with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and those who lost Department of Transportation certifications. UPS argued that Young did not fit within any of these categories; therefore, UPS did not discriminate against her by denying her an accommodation for her pregnancy. The lower courts agreed with UPS. There has been a recent flurry of activity involving what accommodations must be provided to pregnant employees. In July of 2014, the EEOC issued Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues. The EEOC’s Guidance set forth an expanded view on the availability of light duty work and accommodations required for pregnant employees. The EEOC’s Guidance contradicted cases which have held that medical conditions related to pregnancy generally were not impairments within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Supreme Court criticized the EEOC’s Guidance stating that the Guidance was issued after the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case and that the Guidance is “inconsistent with positions for which the Government has long advocated” and that the EEOC failed to explain the basis for its guidance. Therefore, the Supreme Court states that it “cannot rely significantly on the EEOC’s determination.” However, it is noteworthy, that the Supreme Court declined to address the 2008 ADA amendments which expanded the definition of disability, and it did not address whether pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions could be considered a disability.

Despite the Supreme Court’s apparent annoyance with the EEOC, the court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for further consideration on the combined effect of UPS’s policies and why UPS could accommodate so many others but not pregnant employees. The Supreme Court set forth the standard in cases involving pregnancy-related accommodations:

[A] plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act may make out a … case by showing… 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 burden then shifts to the employer to justify its refusal for the accommodation by showing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying the accommodation. The Supreme Court stated that the employer cannot simply claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to permit pregnant employees the accommodation when it provides accommodations to others. If the employer comes up with a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the denial of the accommodation, the Plaintiff must show that the employer’s proffered reasons are pretext. The pregnant employee can create a genuine issue of material fact by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

The practical implications of this decision are that employers should closely scrutinize and seek legal advice in instances where a pregnant employee requests an accommodation that has been granted to other employees and should also review their current accommodation policies and practices.

For more information about pregnancy-related accommodations and other employment law matters, contact Elaina Smiley.
Related Attorneys