Supreme Court Will Consider Whether Pregnancy Discrimination Act Requires Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978, prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. This applies to obvious forms of discrimination like firing, suspending, or refusing to hire someone because of pregnancy, but the PDA’s application to more subtle forms of discrimination is not as clear. Does the PDA require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to a pregnant employee when it already accommodates employees with similar limitations caused by other conditions? The Supreme Court will take up this question in its upcoming term.

The underlying lawsuit involved a claim by a pregnant employee of United Parcel Service (UPS) that the company’s disability policies were discriminatory. After the plaintiff took a leave of absence for her pregnancy, the company would not allow her to return to work as long as she had a lifting restriction. The company allowed accommodations for three types of conditions: on-the-job injuries requiring light duty, disabilities expressly covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and injuries or conditions that resulted in loss of commercial vehicle certification from the Department of Transportation. The plaintiff claimed that reasonable accommodations could have been made available for her.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the employer. Young v. United Parcel Service, 707 F.3d 437 (4th Cir. 2013). It first held that the plaintiff failed to establish that her pregnancy was a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA. The court then held that she had not demonstrated that the defendant’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related work restrictions was “discrimination” under the PDA. It compared the plaintiff’s pregnancy to “an off-the-job injury or illness,” id. at 448, which would not entitle an employee to the same accommodation as an injury suffered while at work.

In her petition for a writ of certiorari, the plaintiff argued that the Fourth Circuit’s decision contradicted the actual text of the PDA, which requires that pregnant employees, those recovering from childbirth, and those with related medical conditions receive the same treatment “as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e(k). She also notes that other circuit courts’ decisions disagree with the Fourth Circuit’s holding, particularly Ensley-Gaines v. Runyon, 100 F.3d 1220 (6th Cir. 1996).

Before granting the petition for certiorari, the Supreme Court invited the federal government to submit a brief. The United States’ brief claimed that the plaintiff failed to make a prima facie case for discrimination based on a framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), a decision that predates the PDA by five years. It also argued that the question presented did not warrant review, citing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s then-ongoing revisions to its pregnancy discrimination guidelines. The Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s petition on July 1, 2014. The EEOC issued its revised guidelines on July 14. The case is scheduled for hearing in the Supreme Court on December 3.

The pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job seekers in the New York City area in unlawful employment practice claims under local, state, and federal laws. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

State Laws, Proposed Federal Law Require Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 14, 2014
EEOC Updates Pregnancy Discrimination Guidelines for First Time in Over Thirty Years, New York Employment Attorney Blog, July 17, 2014
Policy Preventing Pregnant UPS Employee from Returning to Work Based on Lifting Restriction Upheld by Court, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 19, 2013

Contact Information