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Supreme Court revamps Pregnancy Discrimination Law



By Chris Barrett

The Supreme Court of the United States released a ruling that changes the legal analysis used for pregnancy discrimination claims. The decision is favorable to employees and may force employers to provide pregnant employees with more accommodations than were previously required.

The employee worked for a package shipping company as a part-time driver tasked with pickup and delivery of packages. The employee was required to be able to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds. After the employee became pregnant, her doctor restricted her from lifting more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and restricted her from lifting more than 10 pounds thereafter. In light of her restrictions, the package shipping company told the employee she could not work. The employee did not go to work while she was pregnant, and remained on an unpaid leave of absence. As a result of her leave of absence, the employee lost her employee medical coverage.

Legal action
The employee filed a federal lawsuit in which she alleged the package shipping company acted unlawfully in failing to accommodate her pregnancy-related restriction on lifting. The employee pointed out that the package shipping company accommodated other drivers who were “similar in their . . . inability to work.” In reply, the package shipping company noted that those drivers it did accommodate fell into three distinct groups: (1) drivers disabled on the job, (2) drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications, and (3) drivers who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The package shipping company maintained that because the employee did not fall into any of these three groups, the package shipping company did not discriminate against her on the basis of pregnancy, and had instead treated her in the same manner as it treated all other employees.

The trial court agreed with the package shipping company and ruled in favor of the employer without a trial on the matter. The trial court found the drivers accommodated because they fell into one of the three aforementioned groups were not similarly situated to the pregnant driver for purposes of comparison. The employee appealed, and the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, finding the package shipping company “crafted a pregnancy-blind policy” and that the employee failed to show that “similarly-situated employees outside the protected class received more favorable treatment” than the employee. The employee then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act background
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act  ensures that this prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on pregnancy. The PDA also includes the provision that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court rejected each party’s interpretation of the PDA and announced its own interpretation. The Supreme Court ruled that in order to make out a case under the PDA, an employee would need to show that “she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’”

The Court further held that following this initial showing by the employee, the employer has the opportunity to “seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the [employee] by relying on ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons for denying her accommodation.” The Court noted that the employer’s justification “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 Court continued, and stated that following the employer’s opportunity to provide its justification, the employee can argue that the reason stated by the employer is not the real reason the employer took the challenged action. The Court noted that an employee would have enough evidence to get to a trial if he or she was able to show that “the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”

The Court concluded by noting that the employee can show that the burden on the employer is not significant “by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.” The Court noted that, in the case before it, the employee could show the package shipping company “accommodates most nonpregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations.” Further, the employee could show that because the package shipping company has “multiple policies that accommodate nonpregnant employees with lifting restrictions,” the employer’s “reasons for failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting restrictions are not sufficiently strong” and thus that an “inference of intentional discrimination” on behalf of the employer could exist. The Supreme Court ultimately returned the case to the court of appeals.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case represents a victory for employees. If the package shipping company’s interpretation of the PDA had been endorsed by the Court, employers would only be required to not discriminate against pregnant employees on the basis of pregnancy. Instead, employers may now be required to do much more. In light of this decision, employers should review their policies regarding accommodation of pregnant employees. Employers should pay special attention to how non-pregnant employees with similar work-restrictions are treated in comparison to pregnant employees with the same restrictions.




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