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Pregnant UPS Employee Can Proceed With Discrimination Suit

An employment policy that accommodates disabled workers must also accommodate pregnant workers, the Supreme Court said on Wednesday in a 6-3 opinion in Young v. UPS. After becoming pregnant, UPS driver Peggy Young was advised by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds; however, UPS requires drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds.

Young requested temporary reassignment or an accommodation, but UPS refused, even though it granted such requests to employees for on-the-job injuries or for statutory reasons, like an ADA-protected disability. She sued, claiming disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Accommodation Middle Ground

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act mandates that pregnant employees "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."

UPS policy accommodated three different groups of people: (1) Drivers who lost their DOT certifications, (2) drivers who became disabled on the job, and (3) employees who suffered from an ADA-protected disability. UPS claimed it hadn't treated her any differently from other employees who didn't fall into one of these three categories.

Young said the statute should grant the same accommodations to pregnant employees who suffer from a pregnancy-related disability that it would grant to non-pregnant employees who suffer from a similar disability. UPS, on the other hand, said that the statute merely folded pregnancy discrimination into sex discrimination, meaning pregnancy-related disabilities weren't afforded special status.

Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, didn't like either Young's or UPS' interpretation of the statute. Young's version, he said, granted pregnant employees "most favored nation" status, automatically giving them any accommodation that any employee with a similar disability might have, whether or not that accommodation made sense. UPS' version didn't comport with the statute, which defines sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination separately; accepting UPS's interpretation would result in superfluous language, in contravention of the canons of statutory interpretation.

Instead, he set out a new rule: Employees seeking to prove pregnancy discrimination must show that they were denied an accommodation granted to similarly situated, non-pregnant workers. The burden would then shift to the employer to demonstrate a reason for denying the accommodation that wasn't related to the employee's pregnancy.

Dissent: 'Equal' or 'The Same'

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas and (strangely) Justice Kennedy, dissented. Scalia again pulled one of his favorite rhetorical tricks: Claiming the majority opinion obscured, rather than clarified, the law.

In Scalia's view, a pregnant women is treated "the same" as any other employee if she's denied an accommodation that would be denied to any other employee. A pregnant employee's inability to lift more than 20 pounds isn't related to an on-the-job accident or an ADA-protected disability. Consequently, there's no discrimination because the denial was related to the disability, not the pregnancy.

Of course, this ignores the fact that only one gender of humans will experience certain pregnancy-related disabilities; sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination are thus hopelessly intertwined. But for Young's pregnancy, she would be able to lift more than 20 pounds. Sure, men can also suffer injuries that might restrict how much weight they can lift, but men will never have to restrict their lifting due to pregnancy.

The Court's opinion doesn't resolve the question of whether UPS actually discriminated; it just reverses the grant of summary judgment to UPS. The litigation will go on.

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