Supreme Court Announces Modified McDonnell-Douglas Standard in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., for Pregnancy Discrimination Act Claims

March 30, 2015Alerts Labor & Employment Alert

On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court handed down a much-anticipated decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. The Supreme Court’s decision broke some new ground, but stopped short of the sweeping interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) that the plaintiff advocated.

The plaintiff, Young, complained that United Parcel Service (UPS) had violated the PDA because it failed to offer her accommodations for her lifting restrictions caused by her pregnancy, yet it offered light duty to drivers injured at work, those who were disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and those who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications after failing a medical examination. Specifically, she alleged a disparate treatment claim under the second clause of the PDA, which reads:

"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..."

The Fourth Circuit upheld the dismissal of Young’s complaint, noting that she was not similarly situated to those other drivers who were offered accommodations.

Young urged the Supreme Court to adopt a broad view of the PDA, where an employer that accommodated even one disabled worker would be required to grant similar accommodations to pregnant workers. The good news for employers is that the court rejected this interpretation of the PDA. The other good news for employers is that the court noted that the EEOC’s 2014 pregnancy guidance regarding accommodations was not binding.

However, the court’s decision is not a total win for employers in two respects. First, it should be noted that the court’s decision does not address claims that may be brought by pregnant employees under the revised, more expansive ADA (effective in 2009), which more broadly defines disabilities and under which a larger number of pregnant employees may be considered disabled.

Second, the court announced a modified McDonnell-Douglas standard under which a plaintiff can survive summary judgment if she can show the policy places a “significant burden” on pregnant employees in those cases where an employer’s legitimate non-discriminatory reason for denying an accommodation is that it has a policy where light duty accommodations are only available to a subset of employees. A plaintiff may be able to establish that the employer’s policy creates a significant burden where she can show that the employer accommodated a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate pregnant workers who were similarly unable to work.

That said, employers should remember that the Supreme Court specifically noted that pregnant employees do not enjoy “most favored nation” status in that they do not have to be treated better than non-pregnant employees. Thus, even if an employer accommodates a large number of non-pregnant employees, an employer’s policy may not violate the PDA if a large number of non-pregnant employees are not accommodated. The decision fails to set forth a bright line test, which will mean that employers will need to re-examine light duty policies and their particular workforce circumstances to see whether those policies create a significant burden on pregnant employees.

For more information about this alert, please contact Christina A. Stoneburner at 973.994.7551 or [email protected] or any member of the firm’s Labor and Employment Department .