Last week, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision making it easier for pregnant employees to succeed on claims of discrimination based on an employer’s denial of workplace accommodations. In Young v. UPS, the Court held that a plaintiff’s claim of pregnancy discrimination may proceed to the jury by “providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.” Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., Docket No. 12-1226.

The Young case addresses the common practice of employers providing light duty assignments only to those employees with work-related injury restrictions, as opposed to those employees with restrictions due to pregnancy or other conditions. One of the essential functions of Plaintiff Peggy Young’s job as a part-time delivery truck driver for UPS was the ability to lift packages weighing up to seventy pounds. When Young became pregnant, she was placed on a twenty-pound lifting restriction by her doctor. Young requested a light duty position for the remainder of her pregnancy. UPS denied Young’s request pursuant to its policy limiting light duty positions to those employees who were injured on the job, were disabled under the ADA, or who lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certification.

Young challenged the denial of a light duty position under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), claiming that the policy failed to treat pregnant employees the same as “other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work” as required by the PDA. Young v. UPS, 707 F.3d 437, 445 (4th Cir. 2013). Following the majority of federal courts, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld UPS’s policy finding that it was pregnancy blind, treating pregnant workers and nonpregnant workers alike. Id. at 449.

The Supreme Court disagreed with both Young and UPS’s interpretation of the PDA.   Instead, it adopted a new test for courts to use when considering whether an employer lawfully accommodated certain groups of employees without also accommodating pregnant employees. Under this test, an inference of intentional discrimination based on pregnancy arises where a plaintiff demonstrates that her employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer has not raised sufficiently strong reasons to justify that burden. The Supreme Court explained that an employee can show a “significant burden” by providing evidence that an “employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.”   This burden is then weighed against the employer’s justification, which will not typically be sufficiently strong where the employer claims nothing more than that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to those it accommodates. The case has been sent back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to revisit the issue in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Although the Young decision makes it clear that employers do not have to accommodate all pregnant employees in every situation, the new test sets a high burden for employers seeking to defend such light duty policies. Employers should review their work policies, particularly those dealing with light duty, to ensure they comply with the Young decision.