On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. refused to rule in favor for either Plaintiff, Peggy Young, or Defendant, United Parcel Service, Inc. (“UPS”), and instead, vacated the Fourth Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case back to the Fourth Circuit to apply the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“Act”) in accordance with a new approach set forth in its opinion.
Ms. Young worked as a part-time package car driver for UPS, a position that required her to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds. After becoming pregnant in 2006, Ms. Young’s doctor informed her that she could not lift more than 20 pounds while pregnant. Because Ms. Young was no longer able to perform the essential functions of her job, UPS required her to go on unpaid leave. Ms. Young then filed suit, alleging she was subjected to disparate treatment on the basis of pregnancy, in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
After rejecting both parties’ interpretations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, as well as the EEOC’s recently-published guidelines on pregnancy discrimination, the Court set forth a new approach to the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 that is limited to the pregnancy discrimination context.
Specifically, a plaintiff must prove she belongs to the protected class of pregnant employees, that she sought accommodation, that her employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate other employees “similar in their ability or inability to work.” If the employee can establish these facts, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its refusal to accommodate the employee. If the employer can accomplish this, the burden then shifts back to the employee to prove the reasons articulated by the employer were in fact pretextual.
In this case, UPS met its burden of articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to accommodate Young by demonstrating that it had a facially-neutral policy of providing temporary light-duty work to drivers who: (1) had suffered an on-the-job injury; (2) had temporarily lost their DOT certification; or (3) suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The Court did not argue with the legitimacy of UPS’s reasoning, but instead remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for a determination of whether UPS’s policy was, in fact, a pretext for intentional discrimination.
The Court held that plaintiffs such as Ms. Young can reach a jury on this issue of whether an employer’s policy is pretextual if the employee can show the policy “imposed a significant burden” on pregnant employees and that the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is not sufficiently strong to justify such a burden. The Court further explained that an employee can reach a jury on the issue of whether a “significant burden” exists if the employee can show the employer accommodates a “large percentage” of non-pregnant employees, yet does not accommodate a “large percentage” of pregnant employees.
The Court refused to grant pregnant employees a “most favored nation” status by requiring that pregnant workers receive the best accommodations made for any employee under any circumstance. However, the Young decision makes it clear that when employers make accommodations for certain groups of employees, they must be able to articulate a very good reason if they choose to deny similar accommodations to pregnant employees. Indeed, in some ways, UPS was a victim of its own good deeds. UPS’s facially-neutral policy accommodated three groups of employees, which left the court to ask this question: “[W]hy, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”