The Lawletter Vol. 41, No. 2
John Buckley, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA") in 1978, which added the following language to Title VII's definitions subsection:
The terms "because of sex" or "on the basis of sex" include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes[.]
42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). It is generally agreed that the first clause specifies that Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination also applies to discrimination based on "pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." The meaning of the second clause, "or related medical conditions," has been the subject of debate and was directly addressed by the Supreme Court in this most recent case.
In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1338 (2015), the petitioner, Peggy Young, was a part-time driver for the respondent, United Parcel Service ("UPS"). Young became pregnant in 2006 and was placed on a 20-pound lifting restriction by her doctor. (UPS policy required drivers to be able to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds.) UPS failed to provide suitable accommodations, and as a result, Young was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence during most of the time she was pregnant, resulting in the loss of her employee medical coverage.
Young brought suit in federal court. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted UPS's motion for summary judgment, and, on appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in order to resolve the conflicting interpretations offered with regard to the second clause of the above-cited statute and, specifically, how this provision applies in the context of an employer's policy that accommodates some, but not all, workers with nonpregnancy-related disabilities.
The Supreme Court examined Young's claims under a "disparate treatment" analysis pursuant to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Ultimately, the Court vacated the Fourth Circuit's decision and remanded the case, finding that "there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young's." Id. at 1355. The deciding factor was that UPS had offered accommodations to three other categories of employees—those with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, those injured on the job, and those who had lost their Department of Transportation certificates because of a failed medical exam—but that UPS refused to accommodate Young's pregnancy-related lifting restriction.
Both parties offered differing interpretations of the PDA language at issue. Young argued that the provision means that whenever an employer accommodates only a subset of workers with disabling conditions, a violation occurs if pregnant workers who are similar in their ability to work do not receive the same accommodation. The Court rejected this argument, finding the interpretation to be too broad and affording pregnant employees a "most-favored-nation" status. UPS contended that the clause does nothing more than define sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination. The Court rejected this view as well, finding that this interpretation would render the clause superfluous, and a statute ought not to be so construed.
Instead, the six-person majority abandoned a strict, textual analysis of the statute and proclaimed that the PDA affords a pregnant worker the ability to show disparate treatment through indirect evidence via application of the McDonnell Douglas framework. In other words, the same-treatment clause in the PDA 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, and this is so when the employer's reasons "are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden." Id. at 1354. In his dissent, Justice Scalia accused the majority of, among other things, "craft[ing] a policy-driven compromise between the possible readings of the law." Id. at 1366 (Scalia, J., dissenting).
One thing that is clear from this case is that employers should take a close look at their accommodation policies, since the Court's holding creates the possibility that such policies that provide accommodations to some employees, but not to pregnant workers, may be in violation of the PDA. As a result of this decision, the EEOC has modified its Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues. U.S. EEOC, EEOC Notice No. 915.003 (June 25, 2015), http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pregnancy_guidance.cfm.