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Monday, April 13, 2015

United States Supreme Court Altered the Framework for Pregnancy Discrimination Cases

In employment, pregnant women historically suffer much bias and still suffer bias. Pregnancy is one of the latter categories of recognized protected classes under the law that affords protection to employees. Pregnant workers’ rights is something that is in some ways unsettled under federal law. 

On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in YOUNG v. UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC. 

The first clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifies that Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. 42 U. S. C §2000e(k). The problems arise in proving the discrimination if a claim is brought under this law, even with this recent US Supreme Court decision.

Before oral arguments were made in this case, there was nationwide speculation as to the outcome. 

This decision rendered March 25, 2015  alters the standard a court must apply when evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims that are brought by Plaintiffs under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. This new standard does somewhat reduce the hurdles that a pregnancy discrimination claimant faces under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but it falls short of the protections that the Plaintiff Peggy Young sought and that the EEOC guidelines recommend. Thus, this US Supreme Court decision  is not a full victory, and pregnant women still will suffer by having to prove their claim under the new, albeit somewhat easier, standard.

After oral arguments in the US Supreme Court in December 2014, many, while they were awaiting the decision,  had hoped that discrimination against pregnant women would come to an end. 

The Los Angeles Times was particularly vocal in expressing its concern with the ambiguities inherent in the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

In January 2002, Peggy Young began working for United Parcel Service as a part-time, early morning air driver. She was responsible for meeting a shuttle from the airport bearing letters and packages for immediate delivery and delivering them that morning. Peggy Young typically finished her work responsibilities by 10 in the morning, and she then went to her second job at a flower delivery company. Air drivers often carry lighter letters and packages, as opposed to heavier packages because air delivery is more expensive by weight than ground delivery.  Although UPS's list of essential job functions states that air drivers should be to be able to lift, lower, push, pull, leverage and manipulate letters and packages up to 70 pounds and to assist in moving packages weighing up to 150 pounds, these lifting requirements were rare during Peggy Young’s day-to-day job. Packages heavier than 20 pounds were infrequent, plus she was able to use a hand truck so as to not have to carry packages, and other employees could and sometimes did take heavy packages for her. In July 2006, Young was given a leave of absence so that she could undergo a round of in vitro fertilization.

Peggy Young became pregnant and gave her supervisor and occupational health manager a note from her midwife recommending that she not lift over twenty pounds during her pregnancy. She told them that she wanted to return to work, and that she was willing to do either light duty or her regular job. Her manager refused her request and explained that UPS offered light duty only for employees who had been injured on the job, and for those workers accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for UPS’s drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation certification, but that UPS does not offer such light duty for women who are pregnant. They further told her that UPS’s policy did not permit her to continue working as an air driver with her twenty-pound lifting restriction. Peggy Young spoke to UPS's division manager, who told her she was too much of a liability while pregnant and that she could not come back to work until she was no longer pregnant. As a result, Peggy Young was required to go on an extended, unpaid leave of absence, during which she lost her medical coverage. She did not return to work at UPS until June 2006, less than two months after she gave birth. 

By its own admission to the Court, it is true that UPS offers work accommodations to only three categories of their employees as described by her supervisor. It provides  temporary light-duty work to employees who unable to perform their normal work assignments due to their getting injured on the job while working for UPS. However UPS additionally accommodates employees who acquire their injuries and medical conditions off the job. This second category of employees that UPS accommodates,  consists of workers with a permanent impairment cognizable under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The other category consists of their drivers who become ineligible for Department of Transportation certification to drive a commercial motor vehicle. This loss of certification to legally drive an UPS truck may happen due to a number of reasons, such as an UPS driver might lose the eligibility because of vision impairments, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, and impairments of the arm or legs. Moreover, the disqualifying conditions such as these can arise from diseases contracted by employees while off the job and completely unrelated to work, including sports injuries, baseball, soccer, skiing, etc.,  that occurred outside of work. When this happens, what is significant is that UPS offers to its drivers who lose their eligibility for certification to continue to drive an UPS truck, what it calls an "inside job." If these jobs involve heavy lifting, and the drivers have injuries that have rendered them unable to lift, UPS makes even further accommodations for them by assigning them to inside jobs that do not require heavy lifting, such as UPS did for a driver who had a stroke and kidney disease, and UPS assigned the driver to clerk's job answering phone calls, and for another driver with ankle injury acquired outside of the workplace, who UPS then assigned to scan but not lift packages. But UPS refused to offer such accommodations, even temporarily,  to workers such as Peggy Young who cannot lift because they are pregnant.

After Peggy Young lost her insurance, she filed a lawsuit and claimed UPS violated her rights under the  PDA by refusing to accommodate her by giving her the same light duty assignment it had provided to drivers who fell within one of the three categories. This particular issue was closely watched in the media

At the close of discovery, however, UPS moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff was not similarly situated to the drivers who fell within these three categories, and that she could not show that its legitimate reason for denying her accommodation request was a pretext for unlawful discrimination against pregnant women. Young lost at the District Court level. The District Court agreed with UPS that Young was not similarly situated because of her pregnancy and the resulting temporary restrictions as to her job duties as compared to other employees who fell within the three categories . Young appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and which the Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed the District Court Decision.

After Peggy Young had exhausted her attempts in the lower courts, she filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on April 8, 2013.

 After she filed her Petition with the Supreme Court, a question was raised by many advocates of civil rights for women, whether the Court would endorse discrimination against pregnant workers. 

 In solidarity with Peggy Young, protesters at the Supreme Court marched and held up placards in support of Peggy Young. A rally was held in front of the Supreme Court on December 3, 2014 and these protests received national coverage.

While some viewed the matter as one of,   “The case presents the court with questions about a changing American workplace and how far government and private businesses will go to accommodate the needs of an increasing number of women who work through their pregnancies and serve as the breadwinners for their families”, a more accurate interpretation is that this case is about equal treatment for male and female workers under the law.

In her Petition, the question for the US Supreme Court to decide was presented as:

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) provides that “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k).

 The question presented is:

Whether, and in what circumstances, an employer that provides work accommodations to nonpregnant employees with work limitations must provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

 ACLU filed an Amicus Brief in this matter.                                           

The US Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the District Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In reversing, the Court devised a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims brought under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act when a plaintiff alleges she was denied an accommodation for a pregnancy-related work restriction given to non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.

The Court held in a 6 to 3 decision, that in such cases if the employer has referred to a neutral company policy as its legitimate business reason for its denial of the employee’s request for an accommodation, the plaintiff can establish that the reason offered by the employer is in actuality nevertheless discrimination, by proving that the employer's so called neutral policy imposes a significant burden on pregnant employees, and that the reasons for the employers' policy, even if the reasons are true,  are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden on the pregnant employee.

The change in the standard that the US Supreme Court imposed in this case is that it now turns on evaluating the  negative impact the policy has on its female workers across the board, rather than proving the employer has an intentionally biased policy.

Young’s individual case did not end ultimately with the Supreme Court. It vacated the lower courts’ decisions and remanded it back to fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to apply the Court’s new framework for evaluating such claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination, thus reviving her claim. 

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the majority opinion for the Court.  He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. 

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. filed an opinion concurring in the Judgment and supporting the outcome of the Court’s decision but, not the majority’s reasoning.

Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, joined.

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion.

Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law, represents employees throughout New Jersey in complex employment discrimination lawsuits. She accepts cases from all counties in Northern, Southern, and Central New Jersey and has locations in central, western and northern New Jersey to meet with clients. If you believe that you have been discriminated against due to gender identity or other protected characteristic, such as age, disability, pregnancy, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or national origin, or in retaliation for reporting what you believed to be illegal acts of your employer,  she can help you. It is important to know your rights as an employee. 

Contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law, today for a free consultation.

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