The US Supreme Court on Wednesday made it substantially easier for a pregnant worker to litigate and win a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against her employer if workplace policies impose a significant burden.
In a 6-to-3 decision, the high court said that Congress sought to prevent women from being disadvantaged in the workplace by the fact that they, unlike their male colleagues, might require special consideration during a difficult pregnancy.
In effect, the decision says that if a pregnant worker seeks an accommodation, a neutral company policy denying an accommodation may not necessarily insulate the company from litigation if it creates a significant burden to a pregnant employee.
“The Court recognized that employers can’t put pregnancy in a class by itself,” said Sam Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan who argued the winning side in the case.
Women’s rights groups praised the decision as a major victory for pregnant workers nationwide.
“The court has put employers on notice: pregnancy is not a reason to discriminate,” Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement. “The court said that if you accommodate most non-pregnant workers who need it but not most pregnant workers who need it, you must be found guilty of violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.”
The decision came in the case of a United Parcel Service driver in Maryland, Peggy Young, who was denied a light-duty assignment after she became pregnant and her doctor advised her not to lift anything heavier than 20 pounds.
UPS drivers are required to be able to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds.
UPS has a policy of granting light-duty assignments to workers injured on the job, but pregnancy was not listed as an “injury” or otherwise included in the company’s policy.
Concerned about her pregnancy, Young took an unpaid leave of absence. As a result she lost her company-paid health benefits.
After giving birth, Young returned to UPS. She filed a lawsuit against the company, charging that the firm discriminated against her in violation of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
The law requires employers to treat their workers the same as other employees “not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
Young’s lawyers argued that failing to provide an accommodation amounted to discrimination under the PDA.
Lawyers for UPS countered that the company did not discriminate against Young because it merely followed its policy – part of a collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the union – of offering light-duty assignments only to those injured on the job. Since Young was not injured on the job, she was treated the same as any other employee who sustained an injury or developed a physical condition outside of work that hindered their ability to perform their required tasks.
A federal judge agreed with UPS that it had not engaged in discrimination. A federal appeals court affirmed.
In its opinion on Wednesday, the high court vacated the lower court decisions and remanded Young’s case for further action consistent with the opinion.
In reaching its decision, the high court rejected arguments by both Young’s lawyers and lawyers for UPS. Instead, the majority justices set forth a new interpretation of the statute and offered a roadmap to future litigation.
The key issue in future cases – including Young’s – will be whether the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden on pregnant workers.”
To maintain a case, a pregnant employee must show that her requested accommodation was denied despite the fact that her employer had provided accommodations to other workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said an employer could try to justify its refusal to accommodate by relying on nondiscriminatory reasons for the denial. “But, consistent with the [Pregnancy Discrimination] Act’s basic objective, that reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women [to the accommodation policy],” Breyer wrote.
He said pregnant workers could seek to show an employer’s nondiscriminatory policy was merely a pretext to mask discrimination.
“We 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 that the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden,” Breyer said.
He said in that case such a showing could “give rise to an inference of discrimination.”
Breyer continued: “The plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”
The majority suggested that Young might attempt in her case to show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations, while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.
For its part, UPS said it expected to prevail in the lower courts.
“We are confident that those courts will find that UPS did not discriminate against Ms. Young under this newly announced standard,” the company said in a statement, adding that it had voluntarily changed its workplace policies regarding pregnancy accommodations in October 2014.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia denounced the majority for rewriting the federal statute to track the court’s own apparent policy preference.
He said the statute as written by Congress requires that employees must be treated the same for employment related purposes. Both UPS and Young offered different views of how that same-treatment requirement supported their case. But the majority justices rejected both.
“The Court decides that the clause means something in-between,” Scalia wrote. “It takes only a couple of waves of the Supreme Wand to produce the desired result. Poof!: The same-treatment clause means that a neutral reason for refusing to accommodate a pregnant woman is pretextual if the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers.”
An employer can overcome this, if the reasons for the neutral policies are strong enough to justify the burden on pregnant workers, Scalia said.
He added that this new rule ignores the wording of the statute.
“There is no way to read ‘shall be treated the same’ – or indeed anything else in the clause – to mean that courts must balance the significance of the burden on pregnant workers against the strength of the employer’s justifications for the policy,” Scalia wrote.
Joining Breyer in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justice Samuel Alito filed a concurring opinion.
Joining Scalia’s dissent were Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The case was Young v. United Parcel Service (12-1226).