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  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act – Granting Equal Rights to Being Treated Poorly?

    In 1978 Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.  Why then in 2014, over forty-five years later, is the Supreme Court deciding a case about a pregnant women being discriminated against in the workplace for being pregnant?

    Peggy Young was a part-time driver for Atlanta based UPS, where she’s worked for about seven years, when in 2006, she took some time off to undergo in vitro fertilization in the hopes of getting pregnant.  The process was a success and she eventually went back to work, where an occupational health manager told her to provide a doctor’s note about work restrictions.  Young provided a midwife recommendation that she not lift more than 20 pounds while pregnant.  UPS requires drivers to be able to lift packages as heavy as 70 pounds.  Young claims that she rarely handled anything over 20 pounds.

    At that point UPS declared her unable to perform her job and told her that she did not qualify for a temporary assignment.  As a result, she lost her health insurance and other benefits.

    UPS allowed other employees to take on light-duty assignments following work-related injuries or to comply with the American with Disabilities Act.  The company had a policy of accommodating drivers who were no longer able to perform their duties, even permitting drivers to move to other jobs if they lost their commercial driver’s licenses due to a drunk-driving conviction.  However, UPS informed Young that it didn’t have to accommodate her pregnancy because it was not a work related injury, and forced her to take unpaid leave for the last six and a half months of her pregnancy.

    In 2008, Young sued UPS in federal court, arguing that by refusing her request for a temporary accommodation the company has violated the PDA.  UPS responded that it wasn’t discriminating against pregnant women when it refused Young’s request for light duty; it treated most of its employees the same.  The company claimed its collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters union didn’t allow light-duty assignments for “off the job” injuries, which is how UPS classified pregnancy.  UPS argued that if a worker suffered a back injury off the job, she wouldn’t get any special treatment either.

    Young lost in the district court level without making it to trial, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against her maintaining that:

    The Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not, despite the urgings of feminist scholars…require employers to offer maternity leave or take other steps to make it easier for pregnant women to work.  Employers can treat pregnant women as badly as they treat similarly affected but nonpregnant women.[i]

    Young appealed her case to the Supreme Court, and this past summer was granted a writ of certiorari.  Young’s case has quickly become one of the most closely watched of this Supreme Court term with pro-choice advocates, anti-abortion activists, and evangelical Christians all filing briefs on the same side of the case.

    Subsequent to the filing of the case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated guidance to employers, clarifying that they should accommodate people in Young’s situation.  UPS has also changed its policy so that pregnant employees will be eligible for light-duty work.

    Justice Ginsberg ,during her time as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, authored an amicus brief in General Electric Co. v. Gilbert[ii], the 1976 Supreme Court case that prompted Congress to enact the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  This case is almost a repeat of that almost 50-year-old court battle, and it showed during Justice Ginsberg’s lengthy questioning of UPS’ counsel at the oral argument held on December 3, 2014.

    Be sure to check back for an update regarding the Supreme Court’s decision which is sure to have wide-ranging effects.  If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment related issues please contact James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or at (516) 357-3750 or Dina Demosthenous at ddemosthenous@cullenanddykman.com or at (516) 357-3756.

    [i] Young v. United Postal Serv. Inc., 707 F.3d 437, 447 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Troupe v. May Dep’t Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 738 (7th Cir. 1994)).

    [ii] 429 U.S. 125 (1976) (holding that General Electric’s practice of supplying employees with disability insurance that excluded coverage for pregnancy and childbirth was gender neutral and did not violate the Civil Rights Act).