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Supreme Court Decision on Pregnancy Discrimination Act Expands Employer Responsibilities

Published by on July 23, 2015

In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision and re-instated a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought against United Parcel Service (UPS). The case concerned a UPS employee who, upon becoming pregnant, was advised by her physician to avoid heavy lifting during her pregnancy. Heavy lifting had been a core component in the […]

In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision and re-instated a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought against United Parcel Service (UPS). The case concerned a UPS employee who, upon becoming pregnant, was advised by her physician to avoid heavy lifting during her pregnancy.

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_LargeHeavy lifting had been a core component in the employee’s work duties at UPS, and the company refused to provide her with an accommodation that would allow for her to only perform light lifting or other tasks suitable to her doctor’s recommendation, and she was placed on unpaid leave in 2006.

The employee then filed suit under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act on the basis that an employer must treat “women affected by pregnancy” in a manner identical to that it would apply to other persons with similar conditions but who are not pregnant.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, VA had ruled unanimously that the company’s response may have demonstrated a “lack of charity” but that it did not amount to discrimination.

This was decided on the basis that the company’s policies had apparently treated non-pregnant employees with similar circumstances in the same manner.

The response from SCOTUS, by a 6-to-3 vote, was that the employee should have been afforded a fuller opportunity to demonstrate that the employer may, indeed, have discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy if a wider comparison against a “large percentage of non-pregnant workers” had been made. Since the case went to court, UPS changed its policy to automatically offer light duty to pregnant employees.

Laconic Lookout:

Corporate policies that apply fairly but which fail to provide what courts may later to consider appropriate accommodation can become the basis of a discrimination claim, even if the case lacks clear evidence of discrimination or where the employer’s lesser accommodation (or lack thereof) is consistently applied. Employers should evaluate current policies proactively to determine whether accommodations being provided are likely to be considered reasonable and sufficient if these policies were to fall under examination, and adjust accordingly.

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