People For the American Way Foundation

Peggy Young Will Get Her Day in Court

There's good news in the Supreme Court ruling in Peggy Young v. UPS, a case we discussed in our Term Preview and also blogged about after oral arguments. That's the case where UPS refused to give light duty to a pregnant employee who was under doctor's orders not to lift heavy packages, even though they gave light duty to other employees with similar lifting restrictions (those injured on the job, those who'd lost their DOT driving certification, and those with permanent disabilities).

The Court ruled in favor of Young in a five-Justice opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Chief Justice Roberts. (Justice Alito concurred in the result but didn't join the majority opinion.) It's an important victory for Peggy Young individually and for women across the country, since it shuts down corporate efforts to make it much easier to discriminate against pregnant workers.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), passed in 1978, says that pregnancy discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination. Congress had to make this explicit after the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a 1976 case. But that isn't all the PDA says. It also has a second provision: women affected by pregnancy "shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."

The Court rejected UPS's extremely restrictive reading of the law. The corporation had argued that it hadn't discriminated on the basis of pregnancy because they were treating Young the same way they'd have treated a non-pregnant employee whose restrictions weren't caused by an on-the-job injury or other category. As Peggy Young learned the hard way when the lower courts ruled in favor of UPS without a trial, this made it much too easy for employers to force an employee to choose between her pregnancy and her job.

But the Supreme Court majority also rejected Young's reading of the law, where she would not have needed to show any intent to discriminate. Instead, the majority said that women in Young's situation – women asserting disparate treatment but without direct evidence of discriminatory intent – have to do more than show that they are being treated differently than workers with similar restrictions on their ability to work. Once they demonstrate the disparate treatment, the employer has a chance to offer up legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their policy ("saving money" doesn't count). Then it's up to the employee to convince a jury that those reasons are just a pretext. This is the same framework used in other types of Title VII disparate treatment cases, and it can create a hurdle that can be hard for victims of discrimination to overcome.

So this was not the complete victory Young sought, but it is still a victory, because it vacated the lower court and gives her a chance to make her case.

In a brief paragraph, the majority noted that the law has changed since Young's pregnancy, to the benefit of women like her. Specifically, Congress modified the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008 to specify that impairments that limit your ability to lift, stand, or bend are disabilities under the law, thereby presenting legal options to women that were unavailable to Young. In addition, EEOC rules require employers to accommodate temporary lifting restrictions that originate off the job.

Not mentioned by the Court (appropriately enough, since it isn't the law) is a bill in Congress supported by a number of progressives – including our affiliate PFAW – called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. This would make clear that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.

The Court's ruling could have severely restricted women's rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Fortunately, the Court did not accept the misinterpretation of the law that would have benefited corporate interests at the expense of women everywhere.