The Court of Appeals has set forth the ground rules governing when an employer violates Title VII's prohibition against pregnancy discrimination, ruling that a correction officer who was denied light duty because of her pregnancy may proceed to trial.
The case is Legg v. Ulster County, decided on April 26. I argued the appeal. When Legg got pregnant, she requested light duty because it was a high-risk pregnancy. The Jail only allowed light duty for officers who suffered work-related injuries. That meant that Legg could not get light duty. When she then worked directly with inmates she came upon two of them fighting and was bumped by them, causing her to leave work. At trial, the district court dismissed Legg's claim under Rule 50, ruling that the Jail's light duty policy was facially-neutral and did not discriminate against pregnant women. Benefiting from an intervening Supreme Court ruling decided in 2015, Young v. United Parcel Service, the Court of Appeals (Parker, Carney and Lynch) reinstates the case and remands for a new trial.
Young sets forth a burden-shifting model for resolving pregnancy discrimination cases, sort of a modified McDonnell-Douglas test that requires the plaintiff to prove a prima facie case and allows her to show the employer's reason for not granting her light duty was a false reason. In that case, the Court said an employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (which is part of Title VII) when it excludes pregnant employees while covering numerous other persons who were similar in their inability to work such that it is more likely than not that the disparity is the result of intentional discrimination. In defending itself, the employer cannot simply say that similarly accommodation women will cost too much money or is too inconvenient. In proving that the employer's stated reason is false, the plaintiff can win by showing that the employer's policies impose a significant burden on pregnant women, and that the employer's reason for the disparity is not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.
The Court of Appeals says Legg has enough evidence to win the case. While the employer says it maintained the policy to comply with state law that allows disabled employees with work-related injuries to receive salary and benefits, the jury can find otherwise because the County's witnesses did not actually articulate this at trial. In addition, the County's witnesses gave different reasons for the policy. The Sheriff said he wanted everyone to build up sick time and he did not believe in providing light duty to employees who were injured off the job. The Sheriff also said it would be more costly to give light duty to pregnant employees. Someone else testified that Legg was denied light duty for safety reasons. Moreover, the Court said, the jury can find that the light duty policy significantly burdened pregnant women because it categorically denied them light duty. The Court also rejects the County's other arguments, finding the jury can deem them pretextual. All of this is for the jury, which will hear the case on remand in the Northern District of New York.