Supreme Court hears pregnancy, disability discrimination case

Photo of a woman's pregnant body.
Pregnancy discrimination case heard by US Supreme Court

In one of the term’s most high-profile cases, attorneys at the Supreme Court debated December 4 the responsibilities of employers to accommodate pregnant employees.

The case centers on Peggy Young, who formerly worked as a part-time early morning delivery driver for the United Postal Service.

After undergoing in vitro fertilization in 2006, Young requested that she be assigned to light duty work for the remainder of her pregnancy.

At the time, UPS policy required that employees be able to lift packages up to 70 pounds and assist in moving packages up to 150 pounds. UPS denied her request, arguing that it had no obligation to accommodate her under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Since Young was no longer able to perform what UPS deemed as the essential functions of the job, she was forced to go on two months of unpaid medical leave.

Young, who left the company in 2009, proceeded to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a lawsuit on her behalf in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

Both the District Court, in February 2011, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in January 2013, ruled in favor of UPS.

When Congress passed the PDA in 1978, 12 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, it amended Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to add two new clauses. The first, more straightforward, clause clarified that pregnancy discrimination is a former of gender discrimination, thus barring outright discrimination against pregnant woman.

At issue in front of the Supreme Court is the second clause, which states that “women affected by pregnancy….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.”

UPS’ policy at the time allowed three other types of accommodations for people with limitations on their ability to work, specifically those required by the ADA, temporary alternative work pursuant to the company’s collective bargaining agreement, and a separate program for drivers with injuries making them ineligible for Department of Transportation certification. Pregnancy is not recognized as a disability under the ADA.

As Young’s attorneys see it, UPS, by providing accommodations to these employees but not pregnant employees, discriminated against Young by treating her differently in regard to her “ability or inability to work.”

“The Fourth Circuit’s decision…authorized employers to treat pregnant workers worse than they treat other employees who are no more capable of doing their job,” Samuel Bagenstos, a reknowned disability rights and civil rights attorney and Young’s attorney in the case, wrote in the Petition for Certiorari. “That holding cannot be reconciled with the text of the statute.”

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. also argued on Young’s behalf at the Supreme Court.

Although the case proceeded to oral argument, UPS, in fact, dropped the policy at issue in October 2014 and now allows for pregnant employees to be assigned to light duty work.

For an analysis of the oral argument, SCOTUSBlog’s coverage can be read here.