Yesterday, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and answered the question of how to apply the law to an employer’s policy that accommodates many, but not all, workers with non-pregnancy related issues.

Peggy Young was a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (UPS). After becoming pregnant, her doctor advised her she should not lift more than 20 pounds. UPS required drivers like Young to routinely lift up to 70 pounds. UPS told Young that she could not work while under the temporary lifting restrictions which accompanied her pregnancy.  At the time, UPS provided such “light duty” accommodation only to workers who were injured on the job, those who had disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which did not include temporary conditions, or those who had lost Department of Transportation Certificates, so were not legally permitted to perform their driving jobs.

Young filed a federal suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e(k), alleging disparate treatment. The statute states that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy … the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

UPS prevailed on summary judgment in both the district court and the Fourth Circuit, but Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case back to the circuit court. In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court disagreed with Young’s position and noted that the Act does not require an employer to give pregnant employees “most-favored-nation status” by requiring that they be accommodated whenever an employer accommodates any other person similar in their ability or inability to work. The Court also, however, rejected UPS’ argument that it had not violated the PDA since its policies were facially neutral and the Act simply defined sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination. Finally, the court was unpersuaded by the EEOC’s new pregnancy discrimination guidance that an employer cannot deny light duty to a worker based on a policy that limits light-duty work to employees with on-the-job injuries.

Rather, the Court announced a new standard for pregnancy discrimination, finding that under the traditional McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting approach, when it comes time for the plaintiff to show pretext: “We believe that the plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue 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—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”

The Court said the Fourth Circuit did not consider the question: “When the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?” Therefore, on remand, Young may be able to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact and overturn the district court summary judgment finding by showing that UPS accommodates most non-pregnant employees with lifting limitations while categorically failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting limitations and  that UPS’s reasons for excluding pregnant employees from its multiple policies that accommodate employees with lifting restrictions are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.

Takeaways: Employers will want to review their accommodation policies, including those relating to light duty, to ensure that they do not substantially burden their pregnant employees who require accommodation. If those policies disproportionately impact pregnant employees and the business reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify this impact, then such policies should be revised accordingly to avoid violating the PDA.