Supreme Court Rules on Pregnancy Accommodations

By Martha J. Zackin

Early this week, the United States Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., finding that UPS may have engaged in pregnancy discrimination by refusing to accommodate an employee’s pregnancy-related lifting restrictions by transferring her to a light duty position.  In so holding, the Supreme Court applied the same legal standard to pregnancy discrimination cases as applies to cases based other categories protected under Title VII (race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and the like).  Specifically, the Court applied the burden-shifting analysis articulated in McDonnell Douglas v. Green and its progeny, pursuant to which the plaintiff first must establish that the facts alleged are adequate to support her claim.  Thereafter, the employer is given the opportunity to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action, which reason the plaintiff must show is merely a pretext for discrimination before she may proceed to trial.

The Court referenced a new “significant burden” analysis, such that a worker may show pretext (and reach a jury):

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.

Of note is the Supreme Court’s rejection of the standard advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its July 2014 Pregnancy Guidelines and before the Court, which the EEOC published after the Supreme Court had accepted the Young case for review.  Refusing to award the Guidelines deference, the Court found the Guidelines lacked a “thoroughness of consideration,” and took “a position about which the EEOC’s previous guidelines were silent [and which] is inconsistent with positions for which the Government has long advocated.”

For a brief but excellent legal analysis of the decision, click here.