UPS driver Peggy Young became pregnant in the fall of 2006 and was advised by her doctor to restrict lifting to 20 pounds. Young’s job typically required her to lift up to 70 pounds, and she sought accommodations from UPS to comply with her doctor’s advice. UPS denied her request and told her to return to work after the pregnancy. UPS took the position that it could only accommodate lifting restrictions for employees in three specific groups: employees who were considered disabled under the Americans with Disability Act, employees who were injured on the job, and employees who lost their Department of Transportation Driving Certification. In the past, UPS accommodated workers who were unable to lift heavy objects due to job related injuries only, not physical reasons. In justifying its denial of Young’s request, UPS asserted that it was exercising neutrality and fairness.
As a result, Young lost out on several months of pay without medical coverage. She sued UPS in July 2007 under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”). The PDA states that pregnant employees “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” According to Young, the refusal of UPS to temporarily reassign her job duties or allow co-workers to assist with heavy lifting tasks constituted discrimination in violation of the PDA. She argued that the PDA required employers to accommodate pregnancy in the same manner they accommodate any temporary disability. UPS countered that since it only accommodated lifting restrictions for workers who were injured on the job, its refusal to accommodate Young was in keeping with its policy and was not discriminatory. Both a federal court judge and an appeals court ruled in favor of UPS, stating that the company’s policy was neutral, and the employees whom UPS had accommodated were not comparable to Young because their restrictions were related to distinguishable, job-related factors. Not satisfied with the interpretation of the PDA, Young took the matter to the Supreme Court which ruled 6-3 in her favor.
Justice Breyer, who authored the decision for the Court, found both the arguments of Young and UPS wanting. While he didn’t agree with Young that the PDA grants pregnant women a blanket right to accommodations, he also didn’t agree that UPS’ neutrality argument was viable. Rather, Justice Breyer’s opinion clarified that if an employer chooses to accommodate restrictions caused by some temporary disabilities, the employer must also accommodate the same restriction if caused by pregnancy.
Following the Court’s ruling, Young must now return to Virginia courts and prosecute her discrimination claim under this clarification of the law. Meanwhile, employers who are subject to the PDA are now on notice that they must accommodate pregnancy-related restrictions to the same extent that they accommodate other disabling conditions when they arise.