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Today the United States Supreme Court vacated the judgment of a lower court which had dismissed a claim against UPS by a driver whose pregnancy led to medical restrictions. Her doctor had limited her to lifting no more than 20 pounds (whereas drivers are typically required to be able to lift up to 70 pounds). The plaintiff requested a light-duty assignment, but the company denied the request. She asserted that such assignments were available to other workers such as drivers who had been injured on the job, or who had been provided with an accommodation for a disability, or who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications, and that the company was in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by refusing to provide her light duty.
One major issue in the lawsuit was the proper comparison. Instead of apples to apples, the plaintiff and the company argued over whether the plaintiff was entitled to a work adjustment even if it was available only to a subset of employees. To state it more precisely, who are the “other persons” in this language taken from the statute?
“[W]omen affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The lower court held that UPS’s denial of the request did not discriminate on the basis of sex, because UPS’s policy treated pregnant workers and nonpregnant workers alike, and that the plaintiff could not compare herself to workers who were accommodated for on-the-job injuries, ADA accomodations, or the loss of DOT certifications because her situation was dissimilar. The statutory language is not simple, even though it seems so; the Supreme Court split 5-4, and the case will return to the lower court for trial. But both sides of this kind of dispute have caveats to consider.
For the plaintiffs asserting such a claim, the Court cautioned that pregnancy did not create a sort of “most favored nation” status through which the pregnant employee automatically became entitled to any adjustment provided to any other employee. Or, as Justice Breyer commented, the law “does not say that the employer must treat pregnant employees the ‘same’ as ‘any other persons’ (who are similar in their ability or inability to work), nor does it otherwise specify which other persons Congress had in mind.”
For the employers defending such a claim (or making pregnancy-related decisions), the Court instructed that they will have to be able to justify a refusal to accommodate a pregnant employee by citing legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons, and that those reasons “cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (‘similar in their ability or inability to work’) whom the employer accommodates.” Instead, the employer’s reasons must be sufficiently strong to overcome the intent of this important law, and the plaintiff can challenge the explanation by, for example, showing that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers but, at the same time, fails to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.
While this case was pending, the EEOC issued a Guidance on pregnancy discrimination. The Court declined to view that Guidance as authoritative; so, expect a revision.
The case would not be complete without a few pithy comments from the dissent:
“Faced with two conceivable readings of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Court chooses neither. It crafts, instead, a new law that is splendidly unconnected with the text and even the legislative history of the Act. To ‘treat’ pregnant workers ‘the same . . . as other persons,’ we are told, means refraining from adopting policies that impose ‘significant burden[s]’ upon pregnant women without ‘sufficiently strong’ justifications. Where do the ‘significant burden’ and ‘sufficiently strong justification’ requirements come from? Inventiveness posing as scholarship—which gives us an interpretation that is as dubious in principle as it is senseless in practice.”
In the end, look for the “strong” justification for your decisionmaking. You probably won’t go wrong.
The case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., is available here.