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Jul 7, 2014

By Steven E. Kaplan

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Young v. UPS, a decision that will determine whether and to what extent an employer must provide pregnant employees with work accommodations, such as light duty, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

On Jan. 9, 2013, the Fourth U.S. Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, VA., upheld the district court ruling in Young that:

  1. The employer did not “regard” a pregnant employee as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and,
  2. Employers are not required under the PDA to provide pregnant employees with light duty assignments so long as the employer treats pregnant employees the same as non-pregnant employees with respect to offering accommodations.

Light work at UPS

The plaintiff in Young was a part-time UPS driver. Although all drivers were required to be able to lift items weighing up to 70 pounds, the plaintiff’s duties generally included carrying lighter letters and packages. After the plaintiff became pregnant, she asked for a brief leave of absence.

Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff submitted a doctor’s note with a recommendation that she not lift more than 20 pounds, and asked for an accommodation to work light duty. The company refused these requests and did not allow her to return to work because lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of her job.

Notably, UPS, as do many employers, accommodated on-the-job injuries with light duty assignments but did not offer light duty assignments to employees, male or female, who had medical conditions unrelated to a work injury. The plaintiff argued that the PDA requires employers to provide pregnant employees light duty work if it provides similar work to other employees in other circumstances.

Both the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland and the Fourth U.S. Circuit held that the company’s policy was lawful under the PDA because “where a policy treats pregnant workers and non-pregnant workers alike, the employer has complied with the PDA.”

The circumstances of accommodation

On April 8, 2013, the plaintiff filed a certiorari petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on the following question:

Whether, and in what circumstances, an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations must provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’”

She argued that the Supreme Court should grant her petition on this “exceptionally important” issue because denial of workplace accommodations to pregnant workers is commonplace and there is a split between the Fourth U.S. Circuit and the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati,  on this very issue. (See Ensley-Gaines v. Runyon, 100 F.3d 1220, 6th Cir. 1996).

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and will consider this case during its 2014-15 term.

What employers should know

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ultimate holding, employers should be aware that in many states, including Maryland, a pregnant employee is entitled to reasonable accommodation in excess of federal law.

For example, Maryland’s General Assembly recently amended Maryland’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) to require employers to provide certain reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees who provide notice to their employers of a temporary disability, even if the accommodation removes essential functions of the position.

We will continue to monitor this case and report on any additional developments.

This was originally published on Littler Mendelson’s Workplace Policy Update blog© 2014 Littler Mendelson. All Rights Reserved. Littler®, Employment & Labor Law Solutions Worldwide® and ASAP® are registered trademarks of Littler Mendelson, P.C.

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