Supreme Court Revives UPS Pregnancy Bias Case

By Ben James

Law360, New York (March 25, 2015, 10:22 AM ET) — The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Fourth Circuit decision Wednesday that nixed a pregnancy bias case against United Parcel Service Inc., reviving a lawsuit brought by a UPS employee who was denied light duty work while pregnant.
The high court opted, 6-3, to vacate a Fourth Circuit decision that had affirmed a summary judgment grant for UPS in the suit, which was filed in 2008 by former delivery driver Peggy Young. Young had taken leave for in vitro fertilization and, when she attempted to return to work, she was deemed unable to perform the essential functions of her job because of a lifting restriction and ineligible for light duty.

Justice Stephen Breyer’s majority opinion — joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan — said that both UPS and Young’s interpretations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act were unpersuasive and sent the dispute back to the intermediate appeals court.

“Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s,” Justice Breyer wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito filed a concurring opinion, while Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Clarence Thomas, penned a dissent that backed affirming the Fourth Circuit.

The high court granted Young’s petition for review despite the U.S. solicitor general’s objection in June. Review wasn’t warranted in Young’s case, the solicitor argued in a May brief, in part because anticipated guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could clarify the anti-bias watchdog’s take on the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the PDA.

The parties’ views on the relevant language in the PDA were almost polar opposites, the high court said. The PDA, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1978, says that “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.”

Young’s approach seems to say that the law gives pregnant workers “most favored nation” status, according to the majority ruling, which added that lower courts had concluded that wasn’t what Congress intended when it passed the PDA.

“We agree with UPS to this extent: We doubt that Congress intended to grant pregnant workers an unconditional most-favored-nation status,” said the majority. But it’s “similarly difficult” to accept the opposite interpretation of the PDA, the high court said.

UPS maintained that its denial of Young’s light duty request in 2006 didn’t run afoul of the PDA. Federal law doesn’t require accommodations or special treatment for pregnant employees, the company argued, adding that it had simply treated Young the same as other workers with similar lifting restrictions stemming from an “off-the-job injury or condition.”

The EEOC issued new pregnancy discrimination guidance on July 14, two weeks after the Supreme Court’s July 1 decision to review Young’s case. The EEOC said that an employer cannot deny light duty to a worker based on a policy that limits light-duty work to employees with on-the-job injuries.

While the majority breathed new life into Young’s PDA claim, it said the 2014 EEOC guidance’s “power to persuade” was severely limited. The agency didn’t explain the basis for its latest guidance, which took a position that was inconsistent with prior arguments from the government, said Tuesday’s opinion.

A UPS spokeswoman said in an email Tuesday that the package delivery company was confident that the lower court would find that find that the company hadn’t discriminated under the “newly announced standard” in the Young decision.

“UPS is pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the argument that UPS’s pregnancy-neutral policy was inherently discriminatory. Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims without ruling for either party, and sent the case back to the lower courts for further consideration under the new standard,” the company said.

UPS told the high court in an October brief that it was voluntarily changing its approach to pregnancy accommodations and would make temporary light duty work available to pregnant workers with medically certified restrictions, starting in January.

Though Young’s lawsuit originally involved other claims, the Supreme Court’s review was limited to the PDA.

Young is represented by Samuel R. Bagenstos of the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program and Virginia attorney Sharon Fast Gustafson. Bagenstos argued for Young.

UPS is represented by Mark A. Perry, Rachel S. Brass, Marisa C. Maleck, Kellam M. Conover and Caitlin J. Halligan ofGibson Dunn and Emmett F. McGee Jr. and Jill S. Distler of Jackson Lewis PC. Halligan argued for UPS.

The case is Young v. United Parcel Service Inc., case number 12-1226, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

–Editing by Edrienne Su and Sarah Golin.