U.S. Supreme Court Backs Worker in Pregnancy-Bias Case

By Mark Walsh — March 25, 2015 4 min read
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In a case being watched by educators, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday made it easier for pregnant workers to press discrimination claims over whether employers are treating them less favorably than nonpregnant workers who may need similar accommodations.

The justices ruled 6-3 in favor of Peggy Young, a former United Parcel Service delivery driver who claims the company denied her request for a restriction on heavy lifting after she became pregnant.

The court’s decision in Young v. United Parcel Service Inc. (Case No. 12-1226) revives her suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 to require employers to treat pregnant workers “the same for all employment-related purposes” as other workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (joined by several other unions) had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Young’s side, stressing the importance of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or PDA, to the “empowerment” of female workers. The unions also discussed some interplay between collective-bargaining agreements and federal anti-discrimination law, an issue that came up in the UPS case, but that wasn’t a major factor in the Supreme Court’s analysis.

Meanwhile, the relevance of the issue was underscored by a lawsuit brought against the Chicago school system last year by the U.S. Department of Justice. The suit alleges that an elementary school principal gave probationary teachers who became pregnant lower performance ratings and targeted them for termination. The suit is pending.

No Heavy Lifting

Young claimed UPS offered light duty to various other categories of employees, but refused it to her when she became pregnant in 2006 and was given a lifting restriction by her doctor. The company argued that Young did not fall into any of the categories for which it offered accommodations, such as drivers who had suffered a job-related disability or those who had lost their federal Department of Transportation certification. Thus, it didn’t discriminate against pregnant workers. (UPS last year amended its policy to offer the kind of accommodations to pregnant employees that Young had sought.)

Young, backed by President Barack Obama’s administration, argued that the “similar in their ability or inability to work” clause in the PDA requires an employer to provide the same accommodations for workplace disabilities caused by pregnancy that it provides to other workplace disabilities with a similar effect on the ability to perform the tasks of the job.

UPS argued that the clause does no more than define sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination, which would permit employers to deny accommodations to pregnant workers if it were done on an evenhanded basis.

Writing for five members of the majority, Justice Stephen G. Breyer rejected both interpretations. He said that a pregnant worker should be able to prove a violation of the PDA by following the high court’s basic job-bias framework, from the 1973 case McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.

She must show that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and the employer did accommodate others similar in their ability or inability to work.

“The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for denying her accommodation,” Breyer said. “But, consistent with the act’s basic objective, 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.”

The ruling reinstates Young’s suit. Breyer’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote an opinion concurring in the outcome.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, that accused the majority of coming up with an interpretation of the statute that was not supported by its text.

“It takes only a couple of waves of the Supreme Wand to produce the desired result,” Scalia wrote.

“My disagreement with the [majority] is fundamental,” he added. “I think our task is to choose the best possible reading of the law—that is, what text and context most strongly suggest it conveys. The court seems to think our task is to craft a policy-driven compromise between the possible readings of the law, like a congressional conference committee reconciling House and Senate versions of a bill.”

Pregnancy Bias in Education

School districts used to routinely require pregnant teachers to leave the classroom, typically to take extended maternity leave.

In 1974, before the PDA was passed to add pregnancy protections to Title VII, the Supreme Court ruled in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur that school district policies requiring maternity leaves for teachers violated the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.

The charges in the Chicago case, filed last December, seem like something out of that earlier era. The suit alleges that from 2009 through 2012, a principal at a school on the city’s Northwest Side took actions aimed at removing eight teachers who had become pregnant. The suit alleges the school system’s non-discrimination policies do not include a description of pregnancy discrimination.

The suit seeks to bar the Chicago system from further pregnancy discrimination, to improve its anti-bias policies, and to provide “make-whole relief” to the affected teachers.

The Chicago district has filed court papers denying the charges of discrimination.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.