March 25, 2015

Supreme Court Decides Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 12-1226, holding that a pregnant worker who seeks to show disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act may do so under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework if the employer accommodates others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

While working as a part-time driver for UPS, Young became pregnant and told the company that her doctor had instructed her not to lift more than 20 pounds. UPS requires its drivers to lift up to 70 pounds, and UPS refused to allow Young to work while under the 20-pound-lifting restriction.

Young sued UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which prohibits discrimination because of pregnancy, and requires employers to treat pregnant women “the same for all employment-related purposes…as [nonpregnant people] but similar in their ability or inability to work.” Young sued on a “disparate-treatment” theory, alleging that the company had unlawfully refused to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. UPS moved for summary judgment, and Young argued that there was evidence that UPS had accommodated other drivers with similar work restrictions because of injuries on the job, disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or workers who lost DOT certifications. UPS replied that because Young did not fall within any of those categories, she was treated the same as all other relevant employees.

The district court granted summary judgment to UPS, agreeing that the workers identified by Young were too different to support any inference of discrimination and that UPS had provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Supreme Court held that, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to Young on summary judgment, she presented evidence creating a factual dispute as to whether UPS had treated at least some similarly situated workers more favorably. In doing so, the Court rejected both parties’ interpretation of the PDA. The Court rejected Young’s view that when an employer accommodates a subset of workers with disabling conditions, pregnant workers who have the same ability to work as the accommodated subset must receive the same treatment, even if there are nonpregnant workers with similar conditions who do not receive the same treatment. The Court considered this an argument that pregnant workers enjoy “most-favored-nation” status, and the Court held that Congress did not intend to create that status for pregnant workers. But the Court also rejected UPS’s view that the PDA simply defines sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination. Interpreted this way, the Court stated, the PDA would fail to carry out one of its primary objectives: to overturn precedent that rejected a Title VII challenge to a company plan that provided non-occupational sickness and accident benefits to all employees, but no disability-benefits payments for pregnancy-caused absences.

The Court concluded that a pregnant worker may support a disparate-treatment claim under the PDA under the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework. Under that analysis, a plaintiff must make out a prima facie case that: 1) she belongs to the protected class (here, pregnant workers); 2) she sought an accommodation; 3) the employer did not accommodate her; and 4) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying accommodation — reasons that must generally go beyond the increased burden of adding pregnant workers to the accommodated groups such as those with restrictions related to work-related injuries. If the employer makes that showing, the plaintiff may reach a jury on the issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s justifications are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden placed on pregnant workers — i.e., that the employer’s justifications are pretextual. Specifically, the Court explained a plaintiff could use evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers as evidence of pretext.

Applying this standard, the Court held that Young presented evidence that UPS treated some workers “whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s” more favorably, thus creating a genuine issue of fact for trial. The Court did not, however, determine whether Young created a genuine issue of fact whether UPS’s reasons for treating Young less favorably than other nonpregnant employees were pretextual. The Court left that issue for the Fourth Circuit to address on remand, specifically referring to the need to consider the combined effects of UPS’s accommodation policies and the strength of UPS’s justifications for each when combined.

[We note that the facts of this case occurred before the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) became effective. Several courts have imposed a duty to accommodate pregnant workers with lifting or other restrictions under the ADAAA’s more expansive definition of “disability.”]

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kennedy and Thomas joined, and Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion.

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