Recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision – Is there Now a Duty to Accommodate Pregnant Employees?

In a pattern of ongoing protections for employees, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) along with the United States Supreme Court has taken head-on the issue of pregnancy discrimination. For the first time in over 30 years, the EEOC in July 2014 issued Enforcement Guidance regarding pregnancy disability.  In general, the Guidance explains Title VII’s prohibition against pregnancy discrimination, describes individuals to whom the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) applies and discusses how the expanded definition of “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies.
In sum, the Guidance advises employers to apply the same work place accommodation policies, leave of absence policies, medical benefits, and seniority/retirement benefits to all employees, regardless of whether a request for leave of absence, workplace accommodation, or medical benefit is due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or any other disability. The EEOC concedes that pregnancy is not a “disability” under the ADA, but points out those pregnant workers may have impairments related to their pregnancies that qualify as disabilities under the ADA, even though these disabilities are temporary.

Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in Young v. United Parcel Service, articulated a high legal burden that employers would have to meet in order to justify policies that provide accommodations to some categories of employees, but not to pregnant women. The Court stated that it was not persuaded by, and noted a number of problems with, the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance, stating “[w]ithout further explanation, we cannot rely significantly on the EEOC’s determination.” The Court ultimately decided employers need to offer the same or similar accommodations to its pregnant employees as it does to its disabled employees.

The Court held that “a plaintiff alleging that the denial of an accommodation constituted disparate treatment under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s second clause may make out a prima facie case by showing, as in McDonnell Douglas, that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” In other words, the Court determined that a Plaintiff can get to a jury trial and avoid summary judgment by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons” are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.    ​

The ultimate take away from this recent decision is that while an employer is not automatically required to provide all pregnant workers the same accommodations it offers to others 100% of the time, employers should be prepared to justify any differences in their accommodation decisions, which may be difficult to do. Employers should also keep the ADA in mind, given that the Court specifically referenced the expanding definition of “disability” under the 2008 amendments to the ADA.

Practical Pointers for Guidance Compliance:

  • Review policies related to light duty and reasonable accommodation requests to ensure they are in line with legitimate business needs and not based on cost and convenience.
  • Examine accommodation requests granted and denied over the recent past, and on an ongoing basis, to determine if pregnant women are being treated disparately.
  • Train managers and HR professionals on the need for individualized inquires in granting or refusing requests for accommodation.