A Clear Message from Supreme Court on Pregnancy Discrimination

By: Nicole Sieb Smith

03.27.15

This article was originally published in the March 27, 2015 issue of the Daily Business Review.

Although it has been over 35 years since Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, it remained unclear whether pregnant employees, who are unable to work because of their condition, are entitled to claim the same work accommodations as similarly situated, nonpregnant employees.

The U.S. Supreme Court has answered that question affirmatively Wednesday in Young v. United Parcel Service, 575 U.S. (2015).

In vacating the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit's grant of summary judgment in favor of UPS, the court held that Peggy Young, a former UPS driver who had requested a pregnancy-related lifting restriction, can pursue her disparate-treatment claim of discrimination.

Under the court's ruling, a plaintiff can show that the employer did not give her the same accommodation as other employees, for example those who were injured on the job or considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A plaintiff can prove this either by direct evidence that a workplace policy, practice or decision relies expressly on the protected characteristic of pregnancy or by using the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U. S. 792 (1973).

In a 6-3 ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the five-justice majority opinion, "Ultimately the court must determine whether the nature of the employer's policy and the way in which it burdens pregnant women shows that the employer has engaged in intentional discrimination."

The court acknowledged that statutory changes made after the time of petitioner's pregnancy may limit the future significance of the ruling.

Specifically, in 2008, Congress expanded the definition of "disability" under the ADA to make clear that physical impairments that limit an individual's ability to lift, stand, or bend are covered disabilities.

Moreover, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted the new statutory definition to require employers to accommodate employees whose temporary lifting restrictions originate off the job.

Accordingly, the message to employers is clear—do not treat your pregnant employees any differently than other employees similar in their ability, or inability, to work.

Nicole Sieb Smith, a partner with Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell in Miami, focuses on complex commercial and tort litigation and employment defense. She can be contacted at nsmith@rumberger.com.

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