Supreme Court Provides some Clarification regarding Workplace Pregnancy Discrimination
April 14, 2015
Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in 1978 to interpret unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include discrimination of women on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. Once the PDA became law, employers could not discriminate in hiring or other employment decisions because a woman was pregnant, had previously been pregnant, or planned to be pregnant in the future. This law became very important to open the doors of the workplace to pregnant women and ensure them the same rights as other employees.
In the past 10 years, however, numerous cases have passed through the courts regarding accommodations requested by pregnant workers and how the PDA would be applied to claims arising from denied requests. The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued a ruling in a case that offered some clarification regarding the legal standard to be applied to claims under the PDA.
Background of the case
The case of Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS) involved a woman who worked in a position at UPS that required heavy lifting. When she became pregnant, Young requested a transfer to a position requiring light duty since she was medically restricted from heavy lifting. UPS refused the transfer, stating that only employees who met certain requirements (such as on-the-job injuries or qualified disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act) could be transferred to light-duty positions. The lower and appeals courts found the policy of UPS to be neutral and that the denial for Young did not constitute pregnancy discrimination under the PDA. Young appealed, arguing that pregnant women deserved preferential treatment under the law and should be provided with the accommodations given to others with disabilities that similarly affected their work.
The Supreme Court decision
The highest Court ultimately did not agree with UPS or Young, however, the Court used this opportunity to set out a new legal standard for PDA cases that involved the denial of accommodations when such an accommodation was afforded to other, non-pregnant individuals with similar restrictions. If the employer claims that it has a neutral policy in place dictating approval or refusal of the accommodations (as UPS did), the plaintiff can show that the policy is, in actuality, pretextual by proving the following two elements:
The policy creates a “significant burden” specifically on pregnant women in the workplace; and
The burden is not sufficiently justified for any reasons that support the policy.
This decision provides some guidance as to how courts should handle this type of claim in the future.