Guest Post: Interpreting the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in Young v. United Parcel Service

Jessica Bergin is a student at Harvard Law. 

This term, the Supreme Court will consider Peggy Young’s allegation that her employer engaged in pregnancy discrimination in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Young became pregnant while she was employed as a UPS delivery truck driver and her physician restricted her to lifting no greater than 20 pounds because of her pregnancy. This medical restriction meant Young could no longer satisfy UPS’s employment policy, which requires that delivery truck drivers be able to carry up to 70 pounds. Although UPS gives light duty work to employees who are unable to satisfy the 70-pound requirement due to on-the-job injuries, it refused to accommodate Young because her lifting restrictions did not result from an on-the-job injury. UPS terminated Young, and Young lost her salary and benefits for the duration of her pregnancy. She was able to return to UPS after childbirth.

In January 2013, the Fourth Circuit denied Young’s pregnancy discrimination claim. On December 3, 2014, Young will present oral argument to the U.S. Supreme Court that the Fourth Circuit’s decision was in error.  (For a copy of all briefs and lower court opinions, see SCOTUSblog’s archive).

What do the parties allege?

Young asserts that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act when UPS terminated her because of her pregnancy-related lifting restrictions. She contends that UPS should have provided her with a light duty assignment accommodating her reduced lifting capabilities rather than terminating her.

UPS’s policy is to make light duty assignments available to only three categories of employees. These include (1) workers who qualify for Americans with Disabilities Act protection, (2) workers who lose their Department of Transportation driving certification, and (3) workers who become unable to perform their regular duties because of a condition incurred on-the-job. In other words, UPS’s policy is to generally deny light duty assignments to workers who are injured off-the-job.

Young does not fall into any of these accommodation categories. Lifting restrictions caused by pregnancy are not typically covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and do not result in a loss of Department of Transportation certification. Most importantly for Young’s case, pregnancy-related lifting restrictions are not incurred on-the-job. Thus, UPS asserts that because Young’s restrictions originate from a non-occupational condition—pregnancy—it was permissible to treat her like all other employees injured off-the-job and deny accommodation. In short, UPS claims that it was proper to terminate Young because of restrictions caused by her pregnancy.

Both Young and UPS assert that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act supports their respective positions. However, they dispute the proper interpretation and application of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to Young’s pregnancy discrimination claim. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act has two parts. First, it adds a prohibition against pregnancy discrimination to Title VII. Second, in the clause disputed by Young and UPS, it declares that employers must treat pregnant employees like any other non-pregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

How do the parties interpret “similar in their ability or inability to work”?

“Similar in their ability or inability to work” is the center of the disagreement in Young’s case. Young asserts that pregnant workers are similar in ability to work to non-pregnant workers with on-the-job working restrictions. Thus, because UPS’s policy willingly accommodates workers who have incurred the same lifting restrictions on-the-job, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires UPS to accommodate her too. She asserts that this is true because both the pregnant worker and the worker injured on-the-job have the same physical restrictions. Where both are equally unable to meet the 70 pound lifting requirement, both are similar in their inability to work.

The Fourth Circuit and UPS disagree with Young’s interpretation of “similar in their ability or inability to work.” According to the Fourth Circuit, the non-occupational source of Young’s pregnancy-related restrictions was sufficient to defeat the similarity between her and the accommodated workers. Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that Young’s non-occupational pregnancy restrictions could not be similar to non-pregnant workers with occupational injuries—even if both had the same 20 pound lifting restriction.

The Fourth Circuit’s reasoning involves two steps. First, the Fourth Circuit agreed with Young that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act “unambiguous[ly]” requires UPS to provide pregnant workers with light duty assignments where UPS accommodates any non-pregnant workers. Yet, in spite of this “unambiguous” command, the Fourth Circuit refused to require UPS to accommodate pregnant workers. It reached this conclusion because requiring UPS to provide these light duty assignments to pregnant workers would result in preferential treatment for pregnant workers.

Preferential compared to whom? The Fourth Circuit explained that granting light duty assignments to pregnant workers is unfair to non-pregnant workers injured off-the-job. As stated above, UPS’s employment policy categorically excludes most workers with physical restrictions incurred off-the-job. Thus, if Young’s interpretation prevailed, pregnant workers would receive preferential access to light duty assignments but non-pregnant workers with off-the-job physical limitations would not.

As such, the Fourth Circuit denied Young’s claim because it concluded that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act merely requires that employers implement neutral, pregnancy-blind accommodation policies. UPS does not have to provide preferential access to light duty work for pregnant workers with non-occupational pregnancy restrictions where it would not accommodate non-pregnant workers with non-occupational injuries.

What is the atmosphere in which this case will be decided?

Young’s case is one of the most watched on the Supreme Court’s docket this term. Several amici have submitted briefs in this case, including a collection of Law Professors and Women’s and Civil Rights Organizations, the ACLU, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and Members of Congress. In addition, the United States submitted a brief arguing that the Fourth Circuit misinterpreted and misapplied the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in Young’s case. However, the United States also asserts that the Supreme Court should not decide this case because it pre-dates the 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act and because EEOC guidance was forthcoming.

Since the United States submitted its brief, the EEOC has issued its Enforcement Guidance: Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues. The EEOC explains that employers may not make policy distinctions based on the working restrictions’ causes when evaluating whether pregnant employees are entitled to receive the light duty assignments made available to non-pregnant employees. Rather, the pregnant employee is entitled to accommodation if any other employee with similar physical restrictions is accommodated, “including employees injured on the job.” This is an expansive interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that supports Young’s argument and is directly contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s narrower approach.

What impact will the decision likely have?

The Supreme Court’s decision will resolve a U.S. Court of Appeals split over the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s proper interpretation. In addition, 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act expanded protection to many workers with non-occupational injuries, but did not expand protection for pregnancy-related restrictions. Thus, the Supreme Court will be left to decide whether pregnant workers will join these other accommodated classes or be left as an unaccommodated class of workers. Finally, the decision may prompt Congressional action on related pending legislation including the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which are meant to overcome current inequalities so that women may become fully integrated in the workplace.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.