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SCOTUS Creates New Standard on Pregnancy-based Discrimination

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Last fall I reported to you on an important case regarding discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The case, Young v. UPS, out of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, alleged disparate treatment of an employee (Young) who was pregnant, but not offered “light duty” accommodations, because she was not injured on the job, which is a prerequisite for disabilities covered under the ADA. Young had filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964 as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 USC sec. 2000e(k). Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) vacated the ruling in favor of UPS and remanded the claim back to the circuit court, finding that there was a genuine factual dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situations could not reasonably be distinguished from Young’s – e.g. workers who were unable to lift up to 70 pounds due to other reasons such as workplace injury or a recognized disability under the ADA. Ms. Young’s physician had advised her she could not lift more than 20 pounds.

SCOTUS didn’t accept either Young’s or UPS’s position in the case, and instead in a 6-3 decision took a middle route, basically announcing a new standard for pregnancy discrimination. It said that “[w]e believe that the plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and the employer’s ‘legitimate, non-discriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, rather – when considered along with the burden imposed – give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”

Thus, when the case is brought again in the circuit court Young will be given an opportunity to produce factual evidence that UPS may accommodate most non-pregnant employees with lifting limitations while it may have failed to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations, and UPS’s reasons for differentiating between the two were not sufficiently strong to justify the impact. If she can prove such, it is likely that she can show that her employer’s policies should have been revised as a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The takeaway on this is that there exists now a new standard for employers, and companies must justify their refusal to accommodate a pregnant employee. Instead, and similar to a request for accommodation under the ADA, and employer will need to engage in a fully interactive process with the employee, understand the requested accommodation, and determine if it can reasonably provide the requested accommodation. The employer will need to review accommodations provided to other employees who were similar in their inability to work.

Employers should review their policies to ensure that they do not disparately impact or otherwise discriminate (particularly with respect to light duty), against any protected class, including pregnant workers.

Hilary Atkins

Posted In: Legal

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