Young v. UPS: Murky Guidance from the Supreme Court

Posted on May 5, 2015 in Compliance, Consulting

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Young v. UPS, what could have been a landmark decision on the rules for accommodating pregnant workers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).   But the Court punted on the opportunity to make groundbreaking law and, in the process, seemed to disappoint both sides in the litigation. (If you want the full scoop on Young v. UPS and what it means for your business, please attend my lunch and learn tomorrow.   See Right Column.)

Young worked for UPS as a driver.  She became pregnant in the fall of 2006, and soon thereafter her doctor placed her on lifting restrictions that precluded her from performing her job duties.  UPS offered light-duty to employees who were injured on the job and to drivers that lost their DOT certificates.   Pregnant workers were ineligible for light-duty.   Thus, UPS told Young that her medical restrictions forced her off work  and she went on leave.   She returned to work after the birth of her child, and at some point initiated this suit arguing that UPS discriminated against her in violation of the PDA by not giving her light-duty equivalent to what the company offered to other non-pregnant workers.

Young argued that the PDA mandated that UPS provide pregnant women all the accommodations it offered to other workers.  In essence, she said pregnant women were entitled to “a most favored nation” provision under the PDA.   In her view, UPS discriminated when it accommodated other workers with light-duty that it flatly refused to offer her because her disability stemmed from pregnancy.

UPS argued that the PDA only amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add “pregnancy” to the list of other protected statuses.  What Young sought, in UPS’s opinion, was preferential treatment for pregnant women.

The Supreme Court disappointed both sides and bluntly declared neither had it right. Young was not categorically entitled to accommodations provided to any other injured worker, and UPS could not outright reject accommodating pregnant women with light-duty.  The Court instead tried to find middle ground where little compromise seems available.  It held that an employer could defend a policy against accommodating a pregnant employee by demonstrating its decision was “legitimate” and “nondiscriminatory.”  The Court provided little to no guidance on what that means.  As the dissent noted, it thereby injected “unnecessary confusion” into otherwise well established precedence.

As for Young, she gets another chance to prove her case before the same court that previously ruled against her. Perhaps she will ultimately prevail, perhaps not.  Time will tell.

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