Oh Baby: The Supreme Court Looks at the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The U.S. last week Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. was argued before the Supreme Court. Since the Supreme Court granted cert in this case, if you’re an employment law nerd and anticipating a new child like me (baby #2 expected in January! ), you’ve been closely watching it. I see nobody else? Okay, then let me fill you in a bit…

Peggy Young found out she was pregnant in 2006 while working as a driver for UPS, primarily delivering overnight letters. Although Young was normally not needed to handle hefty parcels, she asked for a different assignment when her doctor issued work limitations limiting her to lifting only 20 pounds. The UPS driver role required her to be able to lift 70 pounds, so her superiors at UPS informed her that she would need to take an unpaid medical vacation.

Rather than acquiesce, Young filed a lawsuit under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, alleging that UPS failed to treat her the way it treated other employees. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

It seems pretty straightforward, right? Oh wait, nope, that’s why I have a job…

The issue in Young’s case, which was illustrated by the Justices’ questioning during oral argument, is whether Young was treated differently from other workers in a similar position. UPS has argued that it did not provide light-duty work to any employees unless they were injured on the job or had a condition covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Young, on the other hand, has argued the exact opposite. She alleges that other UPS employees who lost their licenses for criminal behavior were provided with alternate assignments, rather than being forced to take unpaid leave.

So what’s next for the supreme court and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act?

Since the Supreme Court granted review of the issue, UPS has changed its policy and will start granting pregnant employees light duty beginning in January 2015. In addition, the EEOC updated guidance to employers to make it clear that they should accommodate pregnant workers.

Even before the EEOC updated its guidance, you should have been offering light-duty or alternate work to pregnant employees. Quite frankly, its the right thing to do. Female employees should not be forced to choose between having a family and supporting that family.

Even if you’re unconcerned about doing the right thing, a quick look will show that the cost of defending this lawsuit far eclipses any cost UPS would have faced in giving Young alternate work. Young was unsuccessful in federal district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, requiring UPS to hire attorneys to defend its decision at each level. Even if you’re not hiring a white shoe firm for defense, the costs could easily rise into six digits, and that doesn’t even count the cost of a potential verdict.

Crystal Ball Time

Since the Supreme Court heard the arguments, the main issue is which way the Court will rule. It will probably come down to a 5-4 vote, as it does with most of these complex matters, and I predict that Young will win, at least in part. I believe the Court will find in accordance with the current Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which mandates that an employer treat pregnant employees equally with non-pregnant ones. After making that decision, the Court will probably remand the case to the trial court so that more factual evidence may be gathered about whether UPS genuinely treated its non-pregnant employees the same as Young.

So keep in mind that you heard it here first when the Court releases its opinion in a few months.

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Casey Sipe

Casey is a management-side labor and employment attorney with Caldwell & Kearns in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he writes a labor and employment law blog, The Employer's Lawyer. He loves technology, social media, soccer and bow ties. Connect with Casey.


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