By Laura Maechtlen and Julie G. Yap

Last week, in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.,the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to answer the question of whether an employer is required to accommodate an employee who is unable to perform the essential functions of her job due to pregnancy-related restrictions. The Supreme Court’s resolution of this case could provide helpful clarification for employers regarding the types of pregnancy-related accommodations they must provide.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision, which is the subject of review, provided that — where an employer has a policy restricting work limitations that treats both pregnant workers and non-pregnant workers alike — an employer has complied with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  See 707 F.3d 437 (4th Cir. 2013).  In Young, the essential function of the plaintiff’s job required her to lift, lower, push, pull, leverage, and manipulate packages weighing up to 70 pounds. The employer also had a policy of offering light duty only to those employees injured while on the job or suffering from a permanent impairment cognizable under the American With Disabilities Act. The plaintiff sued after her employer placed her on an extended unpaid leave of absence because the plaintiff’s mid-wife imposed a 20 pound lifting restriction.

The plaintiff’s “core contention” was that her employer’s policy limiting light duty work to some employees — those injured on-the-job or disabled within the meaning of the ADA — but not to pregnant workers, violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s command to treat pregnant employees the same as other employees. Id. at 445-46. The Fourth Circuit squarely rejected this position, characterizing it as “compelling employers to grant pregnant employees a ‘most favored nation’ status.” Id. at 446. The Fourth Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to indirectly attack the pregnancy-blind policy as demonstrating “corporate animus.” Id. at 449. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit concluded that because the light-duty accommodations for certain employees were created by a “neutral, pregnancy-blind policy,” the plaintiff could not establish that similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment than she did.  Id. at 450.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, dismissing the plaintiff’s claims.

In her Petition for Review, the plaintiff reasserted her argument that the essential functions of the job, as well as the employer’s neutral policy regarding light duty work, be disregarded and replaced with a policy granting more favorable treatment to pregnant employees. In its Opposition, the employer noted that the plaintiff’s construction would, as the Fourth Circuit concluded, grant “most favored nation status to pregnant workers above all others,” including allowing courts to override the terms of collective bargaining agreements. (Opp’n Brief at 15-16.)

Notably, the U.S. Solicitor General stepped into the fray, asserting that the question presented in this case did not warrant review at this time. The Government’s brief requested that the Supreme Court defer review of this issue, since this case did not implicate amendments to the ADA made in 2008 (that only applied prospectively). The Government also noted that the need for review in this case was diminished by the EEOC’s potential adoption of new enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination.

However, despite even the Government’s argument against review, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case in its October Term of 2014.

Implications For Employers

While not a class action, the issue in Young implicates issues arising in EEOC enforcement litigation. Alleged violations of the ADA and PDA are a significant area of focus by the Commission in its systemic litigation program.

We will continue to follow developments as the parties and amicus groups file their merits briefs and keep our readers informed.