U.S. Supreme Court Adopts a New Standard for Evaluating Pregnancy Discrimination Claims
On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court laid down guidelines for proving a violation of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions 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 was asked to determine how this provision applies in the context of an employer’s policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with nonpregnancy-related disabilities. The Court held that a pregnant worker who seeks to show disparate treatment may make out a prima facie case by showing: (1) she belongs to the protected class, (2) she sought accommodation, (3) the employer did not accommodate her, and (4) the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the employee by relying on legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying the accommodation. If the employer proffers a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the employee then has the opportunity to show pretext. The Court also announced a modified McDonnell Douglas standard under which a plaintiff can survive summary judgment and reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a “significant burden” on pregnant employees, 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. Applying this McDonnell Douglas framework, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Circuit’s judgment in favor of the employer must be vacated so that the appeals court could determine whether the plaintiff had shown a genuine issue of material fact as to pretext. For more information, see Young v. UPS, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).