Supreme Court rules that employers must accommodate pregnant employees

Photo of a woman's pregnant body.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act Case

Although pregnancy is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on March 25 that federal law requires employers, in certain situations, to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women, similar to the requirements for accommodating people with disabilities.

The case centered on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a brief amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1978. The first clause of the PDA clarified that pregnancy discrimination is a form of gender discrimination.

At issue at the Supreme Court was the second, more complicated, clause, which states 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.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Peggy Young, worked at UPS. During the later term of her pregnancy, she was told by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds. UPS, as a matter of corporate policy, denied her request to transfer to light duty work, in essence forcing her to take a leave of absence.

Young filed a lawsuit under the PDA, with the assistance of famed disability rights attorney Samuel Bagenstos. Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled as a matter of law in favor of UPS, thus preventing Young from presenting her case to a jury.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in December.

Young’s attorneys argued that she was entitled to the same protections as any other employee similarly limited in their ability to work. This approach was recently adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in regulations issued in June.

UPS argued that the PDA’s second clause merely clarifies the first clause, and does not impose any additional requirements on employers.

Neither argument found favor at the Supreme Court. Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a largely fact intensive, middle ground approach, that lacked a clear statement of the law moving forward.

At its most basic, Justice Breyer, writing for five members in the majority, focused on the distinctions between the employer’s accommodations for pregnant employees, and that same employer’s accommodations for other employees with temporary limitations on their ability to work.

In the case of UPS, it provides workplace accommodations to three classes of employees: workers who become injured on the job, drivers who lose their certifications from the Department of Transportation, and those with disabilities covered under the ADA.

From these facts, the court found UPS’s failure to provide these accommodations, without accommodating Young may have constituted intentional discrimination under Title VII. However, the Supreme Court did not say definitively that the case could move forward to a jury, remanding the case back to the Fourth Circuit to analyze the case under the new framework.

Despite the lack of clarity, Bagenstos considers the decision a victory.

(The Supreme Court) “made clear that employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience when they accommodate other workers,” Bagenstos told USA Today.

Justice Breyer’s opinion was joined by an odd coalition of the court’s four more liberal justices, and Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Alito wrote a short concurrence, agreeing only in judgment. Justice Scalia, writing in a dissent joined by Justices Thomas and Kennedy, would have upheld UPS’s interpretation of the PDA.