If you have been paying attention to HR related news at all recently you know that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling on a pregnancy discrimination case. It has been interesting reading the various interpretations that have been published by various law firms.
The case involved a pregnant UPS driver who was given a lifting restriction which put her under the limited required by UPS for its drivers to continue working. The employee, Peggy Young, asked for a light duty assignment and UPS said no, light duty is only available to employees who have been injured on the job, or are covered by the ADA or who have lost their DOT certifications. Young felt this discriminated against her due to pregnancy. UPS claimed that they had not discriminated on the basis of pregnancy; rather they had treated all other claims for light duty under the same standard. A district court and a court of appeals agreed with UPS and dismissed the case on summary judgement. The SCOTUS however, disagreed in a split decision, set aside the decision of the lower court and sent it back to the appeals court for a new decision. What was the basis for their decision?
The basis for the decision
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of this case was that an employee can make a case for a prima facie case of discrimination if a pregnant employee can show that she is a member of a protected class, that she sought an accommodation, that the her employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The employer can then show that their reasons were legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for not offering the accommodation. (For those of you that know your HR history this is based on the case McDonald-Douglas v. Green which defined prima facie in terms of employment discrimination.)
The various interpretations presented by lawyers has been varied. Some of them have said that this will:
- Open the flood gates to pregnancy discrimination cases;
- It was a repudiation of the EEOC’s guidance on pregnancy accommodation;
- It forces employers to offer light duty work to pregnant employees;
- It sets a new standard for pregnancy discrimination claims;
- It gives new life to pregnancy discrimination claims; and finally
- It just fails to clarify anything.
One thing that is clear is that plaintiff’s lawyers are grinning and defendant’s lawyers also grinning because there will now be money to be made in pregnancy discrimination.
What is the bottomline on pregnancy discrimination? I think that will remain to be seen. The 4th Circuit Court will now have to render a new decision. Other courts will now have to try cases using the guidance of the SCOTUS.
One thing is clear. Pregnancy discrimination is illegal. If you have a policy that excludes a woman solely on the basis of her pregnancy you are in trouble. All the attorneys recommend you review your policies to make sure you are excluding pregnant employees on the basis of legitimate business reasons and that standard just got more difficult to prove.