Pregnancy Discrimination Cases Have a New Standard

The United States Supreme Court very recently released its opinion on pregnancy discrimination claims in Young v. United Parcel Service. This ruling sets a new standard for proving pregnancy discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The PDA is an important addition to Title VII, the leading civil rights law providing protection against workplace discrimination of all kinds. This new decision includes a pronouncement of a new legal framework for analyzing and proving pregnancy discrimination cases.

Provisions of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 to provide much-needed protection for female employees from discrimination on the basis of "pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition." The PDA includes two primary provisions: one prohibiting pregnancy bias as a way to discriminate against female employees because of their sex; the other prohibiting employers from treating pregnant employees as different from their coworkers who perform the same work, with respect to leave, insurance, and other benefits.

The New Pregnancy Discrimination Framework

The issue in Young v. United Parcel Service addressed the question of whether an employer who provides certain accommodations to non-pregnant employees is required to provide the same accommodations to pregnant employees who are "similar in their ability or inability to work." The United States Supreme Court's response to this issue is essentially a variation of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis familiar to all employment lawyers. Under this new analysis, a female employee who claims her employer discriminated against her because of her pregnancy must initially provide proof of discrimination.

To qualify, a claim must prove the following:

  • She was pregnant at the time of discrimination
  • She could not fulfill her normal job duties and asked for accommodations
  • Her employer refused to accommodate her
  • Her employer accommodated others who were also temporarily unable to work

After an employee has made this showing, the burden of proof then shifts to the employer. The employer must show that their workplace policy was not biased against pregnant employees but was instead a neutral policy. In such cases, the Supreme Court specifically holds that cost and convenience are not sufficient reasons for excluding pregnant employees from receiving accommodations.

As with the McDonnell Douglas framework, the employee is then required to show that the employer's articulated neutral reason was not the real reason for the action in question, but only a pretext for discrimination. This can be done by showing that the workplace policy at issue puts a "significant burden" on female workers, and the policy is "not sufficiently strong" to justify that burden.

This Supreme Court Decision Was not Unanimous

While there are many positive elements this new framework brings to employment law, the Supreme Court Justices did not all see it as a positive approach to discrimination cases. Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia joined in a dissenting opinion. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a separate dissent. The dissenting justices argued that the majority, in essence, created an analytical framework that was not based in law. Justice Scalia's dissent shows his concern that this new analysis does not reflect the language of the PDA, nor the legislative intent behind the law:

To 'treat' pregnant workers 'the same . . . as other persons,' we are told, means refraining from adopting policies that impose 'significant burden[s]' upon pregnant women without 'sufficiently strong' justifications … Where do the 'significant burden' and 'sufficiently strong justification' requirements come from? Inventiveness posing as scholarship—which gives us an interpretation that is as dubious in principle as it is senseless in practice.

As the Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings, it still remains to be seen how this issue will turn out in the end.

If you feel you have been the victim of pregnancy discrimination, or if you have any additional questions about your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC. Our employment law attorneys can be contacted online or by calling (205) 265-1880.

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