Supreme Court Casts Doubt on EEOC’s Pregnancy Guidance

In reviving a lawsuit brought by a pregnant driver against UPS, the U.S. Supreme Court held last week that employers cannot deny accommodations to pregnant workers that are offered to other employees with similar restrictions simply because it is “more expensive or less convenient” to do so.

The ruling in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015), is viewed as a victory for pregnant workers who seek light duty assignments from employers so that they may keep working.  It also may prove to be a setback for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

Last year, the EEOC issued new guidance (https://ohiohrlaw.com/2014/09/04/eeoc-expands-pregnancy-discrimination-protections-for-employees/) for employers on how to avoid pregnancy discrimination that diverged significantly from prior recommendations.  During arguments in Young, the Solicitor General urged the Court to give the new guidance “special” weight when deciding the case.

The Supreme Court rejected that idea, noting that the guidelines lack the “timing,” “consistency,” and “thoroughness” of “consideration” necessary to “give it the power to persuade.”  The Court also noted that the guidance is “inconsistent with positions for which the Government has long advocated. …  Without further explanation, we cannot rely significantly on the EEOC’s determination.”

Young centered on a plaintiff who became pregnant while working as a part-time driver for UPS and was told by her doctor that she could not lift more than 20 pounds.  UPS, which requires drivers to lift up to 70 pounds, told the plaintiff that she was “too much of a liability” and could “not come back” until she “‘was no longer pregnant.”  Consequently, the plaintiff stayed home with­out pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

The plaintiff sued, alleging discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  She claimed that UPS was treating her differently than similarly situated drivers who were given light duty assignments for on-the-job injuries, disabilities as defined under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and issues with their Department of Transportation (“DOT”) certificates.

The trial court held that those drivers with whom the plaintiff compared herself—those falling within the on-the-job, ADA and DOT categories—were too different to qualify as “similarly situated comparator[s].”  The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court disagreed.  The majority held that the plaintiff must show that UPS did not accommodate her, and that UPS did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

“Here, for example, if the facts are as Young says they are, she can show that UPS accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations,” the majority noted.  “Young might also add that the fact that UPS has multiple policies that accommodate nonpregnant employees with lifting restrictions suggests that its reasons for failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting restrictions are not sufficiently strong—to the point that a jury could find that its reasons for failing to accommodate pregnant employees give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”

“The employer may seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, non­discriminatory” reasons for denying her accommodation. . . .But, consistent with the Act’s basic objective, that reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (“similar in their ability or inability to work”) whom the employer accom­modates.”

The Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s ruling and remanded it back to the Fourth Circuit for further proceedings.

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