Pregnancy Accommodation Case Goes To The Supreme Court

One area of employment discrimination law, which, until now, has been relatively ambiguous, may see more clarity this fall when the Supreme Court hears a pregnancy discrimination case. Peggy Young is a former United Parcel Service (“UPS”) employee who requested a break from heavy lifting during her time of employment due to her pregnancy. Rather than accommodate her request, Peggy’s boss told her to take unpaid leave. The issue before the Supreme Court will be whether an employer who provides certain accommodations to non-pregnant employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) needs to provide similar accommodations to pregnant employees with similar limitations.

Peggy Young hopes the Supreme Court will overturn the Fourth Circuit decision that ruled in favor of UPS. She claims their decision conflicts with the language of the PDA and that there is longstanding incongruity in how courts across the country have interpreted the text of the PDA. UPS, on the other hand, claims that its policies comply with all requirements under the ADA as well as any relevant state laws. UPS claims the ADA is “pregnancy-blind” and therefore their actions do not constitute discrimination.

Practical Implications

UPS is arguing that it has no legal obligation to for example accommodate a normal pregnant woman with a lifting restriction of 20 pounds even if it is legally obligated to accommodate the same person with the same lifting restriction if that person had a back condition. In essence, a UPS win could lead to a bizarre world of sanctioned pregnancy discrimination when accommodations are possible.

Young is arguing that a company’s legal obligations with regard to non-pregnant employees determine its legal obligation to accommodate pregnant employees. Young’s argument could make state law and local ordinances determinants of legal obligations under the PDA creating a heavy burden on employers.

Legal Question

The legal question is dryer than the practical question. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed in 1978, forbids discrimination based on pregnancy. Under the Act, the employer must treat a pregnant woman who is unable to perform her duties the same as any other temporarily disabled employee. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and the ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) of 2008 changed the rules of how temporarily disabled employees (including women whose pregnancies are not normal) must be treated, providing many of them with reasonable accommodations.

The ADA and ADAAA did not provide any explicit protections to women experiencing normal pregnancies. The legal question is whether the ADA and ADAAA impliedly changed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) by changing the accommodations that similarly situated employees are eligible for.

One problem is that there is no returning to 1978 when employers accommodated their employees without any legal requirements. Today, it would be impossible to determine what accommodations a company would offer without the ADA and ADAAA. It will be tough for the Court to craft a standard for what accommodations the PDA offers if the Court rules in favor of UPS.

No matter which way the case goes, the decision will be very interesting.

Posted in Employment law

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