Fourth Circuit Says Preferential Treatment for Pregnant Employees Not Required

Pregnant employees who seek accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) need not be offered special treatment, the Fourth Circuit ruled on January 9, 2013. The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals “on the basis of disability.” The PDA, enacted in 1978, amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to specifically prohibit discrimination in employment “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that UPS did not have to afford a pregnant employee an accommodation relative to an essential job function. During her pregnancy, Young, a delivery truck driver, sought an accommodation of her doctor’s order not to lift packages over a specified weight, initially 20 pounds. UPS, however, included in the essential job functions for its drivers the ability to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds and the ability to assist in moving packages of a weight up to 150 pounds. Young’s restrictions foreclosed her from such lifting.

However, UPS did afford accommodations, even for essential job functions, to certain other employees. First, the collective bargaining agreement between UPS and its employees required temporary alternate work assignments for those employees injured on the job. Second, employees who were disabled pursuant to the ADA might qualify for an alternate work arrangement. Finally, employees who had lost their Department of Transportation certification and were thus legally disqualified from driving would be offered a different assignment. But employees who did not fall within these categories and who sustained injuries or disabilities not attributable to the workplace were not afforded light duty or other temporary assignments; rather, those employees were not permitted to work if unable to perform essential job functions. Young, accordingly, was not permitted to work under her physician’s restrictions.

In her suit, Young alleged, among other claims, that she was regarded as disabled and discriminated against under the ADA and further that UPS violated the PDA’s requirement that pregnant women be treated just as disabled or injured nonpregnant workers. As to the ADA claim, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Young could not demonstrate that she had a disability within the ADA’s definition, in as much as she could not prove that UPS regarded her as having an impairment that limited a major life activity. Moreover, her lifting limitation was merely temporary and the result of her pregnancy. (It is noteworthy that because the claim was filed prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), this aspect of Young’s case was decided under the pre-Amendments definition of disability.)

As to the PDA claim, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Young’s proposed reading of the PDA under the UPS facts would require the employer to treat pregnant employees differently than those similarly situated. Specifically, the Court found, UPS had a “pregnancy-blind policy,” that limited accommodations to those injured on the job, who were disabled under the ADA, or who had lost their Department of Transportation Certification. Simply put, the Fourth Circuit held “where a policy treats pregnant workers and nonpregnant workers alike, the employer has complied with the PDA.” Interestingly, the Court also concluded that a statement by a division manager to Young, to the effect that her pregnancy made her “too much of a liability” for the company, was not evidence of discrimination because the individual making the statement was not responsible for the decision to not allow Young the accommodation she requested.

As Young was unable to make out a case based on direct evidence of pregnancy discrimination, the court also considered her claim under the burden-shifting framework applicable to discrimination cases, and concluded that Young could not prove that she was similarly situated to employees whom UPS would accommodate under its policies. That is, she was not disabled under the ADA, had not become injured on the job, and had not lost her Department of Transportation certification. Accordingly, Young’s claim under the PDA failed under the burden-shifting analysis as well.

The legal issues related to pregnancy, disability, and accommodation are complex, and the Young decision, as noted above, does not contemplate Young’s status under the ADAAA, with which the courts are still grappling. For these reasons, despite the Fourth Circuit’s conclusions, employers should consider each pregnant (and nonpregnant) employee’s request for an accommodation on an individual basis. If you have questions regarding employer obligations under the PDA or ADAAA, please feel free to contact any of the attorneys in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

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