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Supreme Court Hears Pregnancy Discrimination Case, Gives Few Signs of How It Will Rule

Supreme Court Hears Pregnancy Discrimination Case, Gives Few Signs of How It Will Rule

December 4, 2014 — During oral arguments in Young v. UPS on Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices focused heavily on the wording of the 1978 law at the center of the pregnancy discrimination case, but they gave little indication of how they would rule, the Washington Post reports (Barnes, Washington Post, 12/3).

Case Background

The case involves former UPS driver Peggy Young. 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 (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/1). She later sued UPS under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PL 95-555) and left the company in 2009.

Young's Claims

Young said that UPS violated a provision that declared sex discrimination to include discrimination based on "pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions" (Washington Post, 12/3). Furthermore, she argued that UPS violated the part of the PDA that requires employers to treat "women affected by pregnancy" in the same way they treat "other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work" (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/1).

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 (Washington Post, 12/3). Young then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which in July agreed to review the lawsuit (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/1).

Justices' Positions Unclear

The justices' comments and questions to attorneys on Wednesday "sent no clear signals of how they would rule," according to the Wall Street Journal (Kendall, Wall Street Journal, 12/3). The Post reports that justices focused on the wording of the PDA and punctuation in the law more than other issues in the case (Washington Post, 12/3).

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan were the most vocally skeptical of UPS' arguments (Wall Street Journal, 12/3). Ginsburg and Kagan "dominated" the questioning of UPS' lawyer, asking about 20 questions each, or approximately the amount of the other justices combined, according to the New York Times (Liptak, New York Times, 12/3).

However, Kagan also appeared open to a ruling that would lead to Young continuing her suit against UPS in the lower courts (Washington Post, 12/3). Justice Stephen Breyer also mentioned the possibility of having the lower courts further consider the issue (Denniston, SCOTUSblog, 12/3).

Meanwhile, Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito posed questions that suggested they are skeptical of the extent of Young's claims under the PDA, according to the Post (Washington Post, 12/3).

The court likely will release its opinion by the end of June (Wall Street Journal, 12/3).

Plaintiff's Arguments

Samuel Bagenstos, an attorney for Young, said that UPS violated the PDA by denying Young's request for an accommodation while offering light-duty assignments to workers who were injured on the job, had a disability that was recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act or lost their driver's certification for particular reasons.

Bagenstos argued that the PDA required UPS to provide Young with an accommodation during pregnancy if it would have given her one "if she had sought it for a different medical condition with the same effect on the ability to work."

Scalia questioned whether such a ruling in Young's favor would be akin to giving pregnant workers "most favored nation" status, thereby requiring companies to give such workers the same benefits as those received by any other employee, even if such benefits were based on company rank or seniority (Washington Post, 12/3). Breyer also raised a similar question.

Bagenstos said that was not the case and that the PDA instead confers protections when accommodations are offered to "very broad classes" of employees other than pregnant women (New York Times, 12/3). Rather, UPS' position "would give least-favored-nation status to pregnant workers and we know that that can't be something that Congress intended," he said (Wall Street Journal, 12/3).

Federal Government's Arguments

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing in support of Young on behalf of the federal government, also stated that the PDA only should apply when "an employer offers an accommodation to a significant class of employees" (New York Times, 12/3).

He said that the federal government "think[s] the one thing an employer can't do as a result [of the PDA] is draw distinctions that treat pregnancy-related medical conditions worse than other conditions with comparable effects on ability to work" (Washington Post, 12/3).

Verrilli said, "The point of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is to reduce the number of women who are driven from the work force or forced to go months without an income as a result of becoming pregnant" (New York Times, 12/3).

Upon questioning, Verrilli also defended the federal government's changing of its position on the pregnancy-related accommodations required under the PDA (Wall Street Journal, 12/3). Verrilli said that the Obama administration's view changed as a result of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updating its guidelines on pregnancy accommodations to advise companies to interpret the PDA to require the type of accommodations Young sought (Washington Post, 12/3).

UPS' Arguments

UPS attorney Caitlin Halligan argued that the company's policy was not discriminatory, as it provided accommodations to workers with job-related injuries, but not to workers that had medical conditions that were not job-related.

Halligan said, "That's a far cry from a policy that singles out pregnant women" (Wall Street Journal, 12/3).

Halligan argued that the PDA "sets a floor. That floor is that you can't single out pregnancy for adverse treatment" (Washington Post, 12/3).

Kagan and Ginsburg both questioned UPS' stance on the PDA. Kagan commented that the law instead "was supposed to be about removing stereotypes of pregnant women as marginal workers" and "ensuring that they wouldn't be unfairly excluded from the workplace." She added that Halligan's argument is "that there's a policy that accommodates some workers, but puts all pregnant women on one side of the line."

Ginsburg echoed Young's attorney in saying that UPS' position confers a "least favored nation" status upon pregnant employees (New York Times, 12/3). Ginsburg noted that, according to reports, men at the company received lighter duty for work-related injuries (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 12/3).

Ginsburg asked Halligan to provide "a single instance of anyone who needed a lifting dispensation who didn't get it, except for pregnant people."

Halligan did not provide a specific example, but said that such persons were denied such requests (New York Times, 12/3).

L.A. Times: Supreme Court Should Side With Young

Commenting on the case, a Los Angeles Times editorial argues, "At the very least, the Supreme Court should rule that pregnant women deserve to be treated as well as workers who are injured on the job."

The editorial notes that UPS "in fact, has come around to [the] position" that "[w]omen should not be penalized or forced out of the workplace simply because they become pregnant" by updating its own policy to begin offering light-duty accommodations to pregnant women.

The Los Angeles Times continues, "[I]f the court sides with UPS on this one, Congress should craft fresh legislation that -- again -- makes its intent clear," although the editorial notes that lawmakers already attempted to do so with the PDA (Los Angeles Times, 12/3).

Columnist: Denying Young's Accommodation Was Gender Discrimination

While "UPS claims that Young is seeking 'special treatment' for pregnant employees," the Supreme Court should require companies to "acknowledg[e] and accommodat[e]" that "pregnancy is a unique, temporary, and you might even say, special, condition," Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian writes.

Abcarian continues, "After all, only women can become pregnant, and only women can be treated differently when they do. Young claims that the way she was treated amounts to illegal gender discrimination, and I have a hard time disagreeing with that."

She quotes Judith Lichtman, a senior adviser to the National Partnership for Women & Families, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of 12 groups committed to maternal and fetal health. Lichtman said that denying a pregnant woman reasonable accommodations that would enable her to keep working -- such as carrying a water bottle or taking extra bathroom breaks -- forces her to make an "impossible choice: following her doctor's advice or jeopardizing her family's economic security."

Meanwhile, Abcarian notes that the case has brought together "several diverse groups" in support of Young's position, with "avidly pro-abortion rights groups" supporting the case alongside such antiabortion-rights supporters as "the National Association of Evangelicals" and "Democrats for Life."

Abcarian adds, "Let's hope the conservative members of the Supreme Court, which have not had such a great record on women's rights this year ... will ratify the progress that UPS, the federal government and an increasing number of states have already made" (Abcarian, Los Angeles Times, 12/3).