In weighing a case of alleged pregnancy discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling in favor of pregnant workers. In a 6-3 ruling, the court ruled the former United Parcel Service Worker should get another chance to show her employer was wrong to force her on unpaid leave, rather than give her a lighter duty assignment as her doctor recommended.
That decision reversed earlier findings by lower courts which determined UPS wasn’t in violation of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act because light-duty work was expressly offered to only other types of workers: Those who lost their commercial vehicle driver’s license, those with a condition covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act and those who suffered a job-related injury.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed in 1978, clarified that gender discrimination included discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth and/or other related medical conditions. The law also instructs companies to treat pregnant workers the same as others who are similar in their ability or inability to work.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. was tasked with answering whether the plaintiff’s claim that UPS violated the law and discriminated against her based on pregnancy was decided correctly by the lower courts, which tossed the case before it ever made it to trial. The court’s answer: No. That means plaintiff will get the opportunity to take the case to trial.
As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, in the light most favorable to plaintiff, there remained a genuine dispute as to whether the company provided more favorable treatment to at least some workers whose situations isn’t reasonably distinguished from plaintiff’s. Because of this, she should be granted the chance to argue she was not accommodated due to her pregnancy.
At the time this situation first unfolded, plaintiff was a part-time driver for UPS. This was a position that required her to lift 70 pounds. In the fall of 2006, she became pregnant. Subsequently, her doctor placed her on restrictions for light lifting. Specifically, she was to lift no more than 20 pounds. She requested accommodation from her employer. But UPS refused, pointing to its policy of only providing accommodations to the three aforementioned groups of employees. Management informed plaintiff she was not eligible for an accommodation, and forced her to take an unpaid leave of absence – with no health benefits.
Other pregnant workers who sought accommodations for the same reason were similarly denied.
Plaintiff sued in federal court. The trial judge and an appeals panel both sided with UPS.
While the Supreme Court didn’t accept plaintiff’s broad interpretation of the federal act, which would be that all pregnant workers deserve accommodation or that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s newest guidelines on the issue should be standardized. However, the court also refused to accept the employer’s assertion that so long as the rules for light duty status were pregnancy neutral, they weren’t discriminatory.
Instead, the court determined the appropriate test for determining pregnancy discrimination employes the “McDonnell Douglas framework.” This requires plaintiff to show she is (or was) part of a protected class, she sought accommodation, employer failed to accommodate her and employer did accommodate others who were similar in the ability or inability to work. An employer can counter by showing it had legitimate reasons that were non-discriminatory for denial of accommodation. However, the court specifically stated that the employer’s reason for denying accommodation to pregnant women can’t simply be that it’s less convenient or more expensive to do so.
So the court didn’t actually find the worker suffered pregnancy discrimination. However, she should have a chance in the lower court to prove she did.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., March 25, 2015, U.S. Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Adams v. CDM Media USA – Age Discrimination Lawsuit to Proceed, March 12, 2015, Costa Mesa Pregnancy Discrimination Lawyer Blog