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SPECIAL DELIVERY FROM THE FOURTH CIRCUIT: PREGNANT EMPLOYEES NEED NOT BE ELEVATED TO A “MOST FAVORED NATION STATUS.”

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A few weeks back, my colleague, Joe Leonoro, wrote a blog entry entitled, “U.S. Supreme Court Tackles Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace,” which can be found here. In his post, Joe wrote about the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS, in which the Supreme Court overturned the Fourth Circuit’s affirmation of the district court’s grant of summary judgment to UPS in a pregnancy discrimination case. Specifically, the Court found that a question of fact remained as to whether UPS had discriminated against Ms. Young by refusing to allow her a light duty accommodation for the duration of her pregnancy. The Fourth Circuit, acting swiftly, issued its opinion less than one month later in which it again affirmed the district court and dismissed Ms. Young’s claim. stork-1

For those of you who have not read Joe’s blog post,

Ms. Young’s lawsuit stemmed from UPS’s refusal to accommodate a 20-pound lifting restriction that applied to her when she became pregnant.  Ms. Young worked as a part-time driver, and drivers are required to be able to lift up to 70 pounds.  Because Ms. Young could not lift 70 pounds, UPS did not allow her to work.

When Ms. Young filed suit under the PDA as a result of this determination, she argued that UPS discriminated against her on account of her pregnancy because UPS would accommodate non-pregnant employees who were subject to similar restrictions as hers.  For example, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, UPS provided temporary alternative work assignments to employees unable to perform their normal work assignments due to an on-the-job injury.  Ms. Young also introduced evidence that a number of employees received accommodations while suffering similar or more serious disabilities than she suffered and that some of these disabilities had not been incurred on the job.  According to the testimony of one employee, the only time a light duty request became an issue occurred when the requests were made by pregnant employees.  UPS also provided accommodations to drivers who lost their Department of Transportation certifications because of a failed medical exam, a lost driver’s license, or a motor vehicle accident.

In again affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit Court found that Ms. Young failed to prove that similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment than she did. As set forth above, UPS’s temporary light duty programs applied only to those injured on the job, those who were legally “disabled” as set forth in the ADA, and those who could not drive due to a failed DOT exam, loss of driver’s license, or who had been in a motor vehicle accident. The Court rejected Ms. Young’s position that she was disabled as defined by the ADA and noted that none of these other conditions applied to her. The Court explicitly rejected Ms. Young’s position that she should be treated more favorably than all other employees because she was pregnant. UPS treated Ms. Young no differently than it would have treated a male co-worker who suffered an off-the-job injury which resulted in a lifting restriction; thus, it was not discriminating against Ms. Young in applying its policy to her.

Although the outcome of Young was favorable for employers, affirming a longtime understanding of the law, it could be a trap for the unwary. Young filed her lawsuit before the ADA was amended in 2009 by the ADAAA, broadening the definition of “disability” greatly. Therefore, had the Fourth Circuit applied the ADAAA to Ms. Young, it may have found that she did qualify as disabled under the Act and that she was entitled to the accommodation she requested. Because this area of the law is complicated, it is important that you seek competent counsel when considering an appropriate course of action if a pregnant employee requests an accommodation

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