Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a pregnant woman on her claim that her employer discriminated against her on account of her pregnancy. The case, entitled Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., involved a pregnant UPS worker whose doctor recommended that she not life heavy objects while pregnant. When the employee requested an accommodation, UPS refused it and told the employee she could not work while under a lifting restriction. This refusal occurred even though UPS routinely granted accommodations to other employees under non-pregnancy related lift restrictions. The employee therefore brought a disparate treatment discrimination claim in federal court against UPS, claiming that she was being treated differently than other “similarly situated” employees.
The federal District Court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS, holding that the employee could not state a successful disparate treatment claim. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, concluding that “UPS has crafted a pregnancy-blind policy that is at least facially a ‘neutral and legitimate business practice,’ and not evidence of UPS’s discriminatory animus toward pregnant workers.”
But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in a 6-3 vote and held that:
1. Pregnant workers may bring discrimination claims based on disparate treatment by showing that (a) the employee belongs to a protected class; (b) that she sought an accommodation; (c) that the employer failed or refused to accommodate the employee; and (d) and that the employer did accommodate others “similarly in their ability or inability to work.”
2. If a pregnant employee makes this prima facie case, then the burden of proof shifts to the employer to offer “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons” for denying the accommodation.
3. If the employer offers persuasive “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons,” then the employee can attempt to show that those reasons are, in fact, a mere pretext for actual discriminatory animus. If the employee can show that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant workers, that can give rise to a claim for discrimination, especially when the employer’s “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reasons offered are not strong or persuasive.
4. The plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a “significant burden” exists merely by showing that “the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”
Based on these principles, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the employee created a triable issue as to “whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from hers.” Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of UPS and sent the case back down for further proceedings.
Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, which can be found here.