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What UPS v. Young Means for Corporate Employment Policies

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 27, 2015 6:56 AM

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court allowed a lawsuit brought by a pregnant driver against UPS to proceed. The driver, Peggy Young, was told by her doctor that she shouldn't be lifting more than 20 pounds. UPS drivers, however, have to lift 70 pounds. She asked for an accommodation, UPS said no, and Peggy was unable to work, eventually losing her medical benefits.

The Supreme Court's decision has wide-ranging implications for pregnancy discrimination and sets out a new test for determining whether an employer action is discriminatory toward a pregnant employee. Here's what GCs need to know.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Enacted as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the PDA mandates that employees "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."

Last year, just after the Supreme Court granted a petition for certiorari in Young v. UPS, the EEOC issued guidelines clarifying that, while pregnancy itself isn't a disability under the ADA, "pregnant workers may have impairments related to their pregnancies that qualify as disabilities under the ADA."

The Supreme Court Test

The Court's majority held that employees alleging pregnancy discrimination can do so through the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework for proving disparate treatment indirectly. A pregnant employee must first show that she belongs to the protected class, asked for an accommodation, was refused an accommodation, and that the employer did accommodate others who were similarly unable to work.

The burden then shifts to the employer to prove that the employer refused the accommodation for "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons."

If the employer is successful, the employee then gets a shot at showing that the allegedly legitimate reasons were just a pretext. The employee can create a reasonable inference of a pretext, for example, by showing that the policies impose a burden on pregnant workers and that the employer's reasons aren't sufficient to justify that burden.

What Does That Mean?

In practice, the Court's new test may have the effect of invalidating existing corporate policies. From now on, policies will have to accommodate pregnant employees who have disabilities that would be accommodated if the employee weren't pregnant.

For example, a company that offered accommodations to employees who couldn't lift 50 pounds due to a workplace injury may now have to justify a failure to extend that same accommodation to a pregnant employee, even though the pregnant employee can't lift 50 pounds due to a workplace injury.

Justice Breyer was careful, however, not to adopt a broad reading of the statute that granted pregnant employees "most favored nation status." Employers can still treat pregnant employees differently from other similarly situated employees, but they must provide a legitimate reason for doing so. Corporations must have on file descriptions of discrete job duties and the justifications for the necessity of those duties.

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