March 25, 2015 — In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that UPS was wrong to deny a pregnant worker accommodations it offers to other employees, USA Today reports (Wolf, USA Today, 3/25).
Peggy Young, the former UPS driver who brought the case, had sued for pregnancy discrimination but had her claims rejected in lower courts (Sherman, AP/ABC News, 3/25).
According to USA Today, the case is of "critical importance" for pregnant workers. More than six in 10 women who give birth were employed during the 12 months prior to giving birth, USA Today reports (USA Today, 3/25).
While pregnant with her daughter more than seven years ago, Young presented UPS with notes from her doctor and midwife stating that she should not lift heavy objects during her pregnancy. However, UPS denied Young a light-duty assignment that would have allowed her to continue working.
Young then took an unpaid leave of absence, during which she lost her employer-sponsored health insurance and pension benefits, and returned to her job after giving birth. She later sued UPS under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PL 95-555) and left the company in 2009.
A federal district court ruled against Young, granting summary judgment for UPS rather than conducting a trial. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. Young appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in December (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/4/14).
The justices in the majority said that Young's case should go back to the lower courts for a possible trial that would center on why the company refused to accommodate her request for a temporary assignment but allowed such accommodations for injured workers.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito also sided with the majority but wrote a separate opinion.
UPS had argued that the PDA permitted employer policies that gave special preferences to workers injured on the job. However, Breyer said the lower courts should have taken into account the company's reasoning for accommodating non-pregnant workers. "Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant workers as well?" Breyer wrote (Stohr, Bloomberg, 3/25).
Specifically, Breyer said the lower courts should determine if UPS had "legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual justification" for the different treatment of pregnant employees. He added that there is a "genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young's."
In a dissent, Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the majority went beyond the scope of the PDA. The majority's decision could make it more difficult for employers to justify workplace policies that could potentially burden pregnant women, the dissent argued (Hurley, Reuters, 3/25).
Young's attorney, Samuel Bagenstos, said, "The Court made clear that employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience when they accommodate other workers. It's a big step forward towards enforcing the principle that a woman shouldn't have to choose between her pregnancy and her job" (Carmon, MSNBC, 3/25).
National Partnership for Women & Families Senior Advisor Judith Lichtman praised the ruling, saying it "is good news for Peggy Young and for all pregnant workers." She added that the decision "issues a clear and welcome message to employers that accommodating most non-pregnant workers with injuries or disabilities while refusing to accommodate most pregnant workers is against the law. All employers should now re-examine their policies to ensure that pregnant women will not face discrimination on the job" (National Partnership statement, 3/25).