SCOTUS puts pregnant workers on more equal footing

Or is it "an interpretation that is as dubious in principle as it is senseless in practice"? How does the Pregnancy Discrimination Act work? If a pregnant woman can't do her regular job and asks for a light duty assignment, and many (but not all) other workers get light duty as an accommodation for a disability or on-the-job injury, must the employer also accommodate the pregnant woman? The two word answer: Probably yes.

Young v. United Parcel Service (US Supreme Court 03/25/2015) (6-3).

  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act clause #1: Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act clause #2: Employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Lots of folks have struggled with that second clause. It make a great law school exam question. The US Supreme Court rejected all three potential answers provided by the litigants:

  • The woman said she should be accommodated if any other workers are accommodated. The Court said that's too broad, and would apply if only one or two "others" were accommodated.
  • The employer said the second clause simply defines sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination. The Court said that can't be so, because the first clause already does that.
  • The Government was pushing a recently-adopted EEOC interpretation, which the Court rejected because it was an unexplained deviation from prior interpretations.

So, how does the PDA work?

Well, the Court came up with a modification of the well-known McDonnell Douglas framework: Plaintiff's prima facie case, employer's “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons, plaintiff's showing that the employer’s proffered reasons are in fact pretextual. Way too long for a blog post. In the end, the Court sent the case back, saying that there is a genuine dispute as to whether the employer provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.

Three dissenting Justices ripped the majority decision, saying it displayed "Inventiveness posing as scholarship—which gives us an interpretation that is as dubious in principle as it is senseless in practice."

My view: A long overdue recognition that the PDA usually requires employers to accommodate pregnant women on the same basis that they accommodate other employees. Pregnancy has a cause that is different from an ADA disability or an on-the-job injury, yet the impact on the individual is essentially the same. The PDA was designed to recognize this.