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US Supreme Court Rules on Denial of Accommodation Claims Under Pregnancy Discrimination Act

On March 25, 2015, in Young v. UPS, Inc., the United States Supreme Court considered the application of the second clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000e(k) amending Title VII in a denial of accommodation disparate treatment claim which states:

“. . . . women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment – related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work. . . .”

The plaintiff, a pregnant driver, was told by her doctors she could not lift more than 20 pounds during her first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter. The defendant employer required drivers like the plaintiff to be able to lift parcels weighing up 70 pounds and up to 150 pounds with assistance. Defendant employer had policies accommodating employees injured on-the-job, employees with disabilities covered under the ADA, and employees that lost certification. Plaintiff asked defendant’s capital division manager to accommodate her disability, he replied that, while she was pregnant, she was “too much of a liability” and could “not come back” until she “was no longer pregnant.” Defendant told plaintiff she could not work while under a lifting restriction forcing plaintiff to stay home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually resulting in the loss of her medical coverage. The US Supreme Court focused on plaintiff’s claim that defendant acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy – related lifting restriction. The US Supreme Court rejected both the employee’s and the employer’s interpretation of the second clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and outlined the method of proving a claim a denial of accommodation claim disparate treatment claim under the indirect method of proof.

The majority of the US Supreme Court held that a plaintiff alleging a denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing:

  1. She belongs to a protected class;
  2. She sought an accommodation;
  3. That the employer did not accommodate her;
  4. And that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The Supreme Court held that the employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying her the accommodation. However, that reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (“similar in their ability or inability to work”) whom the employer accommodates.

If the employer offers an apparently “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason for its actions, the plaintiff may in turn show that the employer’s proffered reasons are in fact pretextual. The majority to the Supreme Court believed that a plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather – when considered along with the burden imposed – give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. The majority of the Supreme Court further found that a plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

The majority of the Supreme Court found that the plaintiff created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant employer provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from plaintiff’s and thereby creating an issue of fact as to the fourth prong of the prima facie case. The majority of the Supreme Court further found plaintiff introduced evidence that defendant had three separate accommodation policies (on-the-job, ADA, and DOT). The Supreme Court did not decide whether plaintiff created a genuine issue of material facts as to whether the defendant employer’s reasons for having treated plaintiff less favorably than the other non-pregnant employees was pretextual and remanded the case to the lower courts for further proceedings.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS, Inc., outlined the elements needed to bring a claim of denial of an accommodation under the Preganancy Discrimination Act on a theory disparate treatment liability under the indirect method of proof. However, the Illinois Human Rights Act as recently amended on January 1, 2015, provides greater protections from discrimination to pregnant Illinois employees. The Illinois Human Rights Act requires employers to consider reasonable accommodations or else face potential liability. 

If you would like to learn more about your rights to be free from pregnancy discrimination, contact Brian J. Graber, Ltd., at (312) 291-4648 for a free consultation.