Supreme Court sides with pregnant worker in disability discrimination case

By Matt Plain

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week (March 25) ruled in favor of a pregnant worker, allowing her lawsuit to proceed against United Parcel Service for disability discrimination based on its alleged refusal to provide reasonable accommodations during her pregnancy.

The court, in a 6-3 decision, reversed a federal court of appeals decision dismissing the disability discrimination claim of the worker, Peggy Young, and at the same time determined that a “disparate treatment” theory of recovery applies to pregnancy discrimination claims.

A disparate treatment claim, the court said, is based on “showing actions taken by the employer from which one can infer, if such actions remain unexplained, that it is more likely than not that such actions were based on a discriminatory criterion illegal under [the relevant civil rights law].”

If so, the burden then would be shifted to the employer to show nondiscriminatory reasons pregnant women were not included among the classes of workers accommodated, the court said.

Ms. Young’s doctor determined that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Her position as a driver typically required her to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS declined to transfer Ms. Young to another position and told her that she could not work with the lifting restriction. As a result, Ms. Young lost her job and health insurance for nine months.

Ms. Young sued UPS, alleging that it discriminated against her by refusing to transfer her to light duty work during her pregnancy, even though UPS permitted other workers with disabilities to perform such work.

The trial court and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with UPS, holding that Ms. Young could not make a case of discrimination. The case will now return to the lower courts for a determination whether UPS’s reasons for treating Ms. Young differently from other workers were discriminatory in nature.