On March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated ruling in Young v. United Parcel Service, which addressed whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e(k) (PDA), requires an employer to provide the same work accommodations to an employee with pregnancy-related work limitations as it does to employees with similar, but non-pregnancy related, work limitations. The Court, in adopting a new standard for evaluating claims under the PDA, revived the Plaintiff's lawsuit and will allow it to proceed in litigation. In doing so, however, the Court rejected the government's argument that it should give the EEOC's 2014 Guidance special, if not controlling, authority because it lacked the timing, consistency and thoroughness of consideration necessary to "give it power to persuade." The Court's decision in Young will require employers to re-evaluate policies and practices with respect to handling requests for reasonable accommodations and light duty assignments.
Peggy Young was employed as a delivery driver for UPS. Her position required her to lift up to seventy pounds as an essential function of her job. In 2006, she requested a leave of absence in order to undergo in vitro fertilization. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant and was advised by her medical practitioners not to lift more than twenty pounds while working, and therefore requested a light duty assignment. Importantly, pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement, UPS accommodated on-the-job injuries with light duty assignments but did not offer light duty assignments to employees who had medical conditions unrelated to a work injury. UPS then denied her request and did not allow her to return to work because she could not perform an essential function of her job (e.g, lifting more than 20 pounds). Although she had exhausted her available FMLA leave, UPS allowed Young to take an extended, unpaid leave of absence.
Young argued that the PDA requires employers to provide pregnant employees with light duty assignments if it provides such assignments to other employees. UPS moved for summary judgment and argued that Young could not show that its decision was based on her pregnancy or that she was treated differently than similarly situated individuals who were not pregnant. Finding that there were no questions of fact, the district court granted UPS's summary judgment and dismissed Young's claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit and held that Young may attempt to establish her case under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting evidentiary framework. Under this framework, she would be required to make out a prima facie case (she is a member of a protected class; she sought an accommodation that was refused; and that UPS accommodated others with similar jobs in the same manner). UPS would thereafter be required to come forward with evidence that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying her request. After meeting this burden of production, Young would have one last chance to establish her claim by demonstrating the reason UPS gave for denying her a light duty assignment was pretext for unlawful discrimination.
Importantly, after the Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case, the EEOC issued guidance in 2014 that provides: "An employer may not refuse to treat a pregnant worker the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work by relying on a policy that makes distinctions based on the source of an employee's limitations (e.g., a policy of providing light duty only to workers injured on the job)." 2 EEOC Compliance Manual § 626-I(A)(5), p. 626:0009 (July 2014). This Guidance specifically instructs that "an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries." The EEOC asked the Court to give this Guidance special, if not controlling, authority. The Court denied this request, stating that the EEOC's Guidance lacked the timing, consistency and thoroughness of consideration necessary to "give it power to persuade" because the Guidance: (1) was promulgated after the Court agreed to decide the case and takes a position on which previous EEOC guidelines were silent; (2) is inconsistent with positions long advocated by the Government; and (3) the EEOC does not explain the basis for its latest guidance.
The Court's revival of Young's claims will no doubt spark additional litigation under the ADA and PDA. Employers will benefit from re-evaluating their reasonable accommodation policies and practices with respect to allowing employees light duty assignments in light of the Supreme Court's holding in Young.