Monday, April 6, 2015

Supreme Court clarifies Pregnancy Discrimination Act

After the Supreme Court in 1976 issued a notorious Title VII ruling that denied rights to certain pregnant plaintiffs, Congress two years later enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which said you cannot discriminate against pregnant woman in the workplace. The Supreme Court has not had much occasion to interpret the PDA. It did so this term.

The case is Young v. United Parcel Service, decided on March 25. Young was a UPS driver who got pregnant and was unable to lift heavy packages. UPS told Young she could not work while under a lifting restriction. But her male co-workers were given light duty assignments for on-the-job injuries. She sued under the PDA, which includes this language:

women 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.
Congress in 1978 may have gotten on the stick in amending Title VII to protect pregnant woman, but this clause is particularly clunky and needs to be read at least 6 or 7 times to fully understand its meaning. Even then, it's not clear. That is why this case reached the Supreme Court. Writing for the Court, Justice Breyer reviews the interpretations offered by all sides. He rejects those interpretations and says the traditional McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting model applies in determining whether an employer failed to reasonably accommodate pregnant women. Here is the evidentiary model now governing these claims:

If plaintiff shows that the employer did not accommodate her, and that management did accommodate others "similar in their ability or inability to work," the employer than has to articulate a neutral reason for this disparate treatment. "But, consistent with the Act’s basic objective, that reason normally 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." Plaintiff must then show that the employer's proffered reasons are a pretext. The plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination."

In the end, the 6-3 majority says, "The plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers."

This evidentiary model applies McDonnell-Douglas in the context of pregnancy. That's why some of the factors here are unique to pregnancy and accommodations. Sort of like importing the Americans with Disabilities Act's reasonable accommodation framework into Title VII. As anyone who handles ADA cases can tell you, reasonable accommodations cases are more complicated than wrongful discharge cases under Title VII, primarily because of that accommodation angle. Under the new framework adopted by the Supreme Court in this case, summary judgment for UPS is vacated and the case is remanded for the Fourth Circuit to worry about it.

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