FOURTH CIRCUIT HOLDS EMPLOYERS DO NOT HAVE TO PROVIDE LIGHT DUTY WORK TO PREGNANT EMPLOYEES

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, recently held that maintaining a policy that provides light duty work for certain circumstances—but not pregnancy—is not sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The court also held that the employer did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not granting the pregnant employee light duty work.

The plaintiff in Young v. UPS alleged sex discrimination in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) provision of Title VII and disability discrimination under the ADA.  Her employer, United Parcel Service, would not grant her light duty after her doctor imposed a lifting restriction of twenty pounds for the first twenty weeks of her pregnancy and not more than ten pounds for the rest of her term.  As a delivery driver, the plaintiff was required, as an essential function of her job, to be able to lift up to 70 pounds and to assist in moving packages weighing up to 150 pounds.  Pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement, UPS only allowed light duty work in three situations:  (1) as an accommodation for a disability under the ADA, (2) for those unable to perform their normal job due to an on-the-job injury, and, (3) for drivers who lost their Department of Transportation certification.  Because Young didn’t fall into any of these three situations, UPS would not grant her light duty work.

The trial court found, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, that Young’s ADA claim failed because she could not establish that UPS regarded her as disabled.  UPS’s occupational health manager merely regarded Young as having a “relatively manageable” and short duration lifting restriction.  The court found that this was not a disability within the meaning of the ADA, which requires that an impairment “substantially limits one or more life activities.”

Regarding the plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim under the PDA, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s finding that, because UPS’s light duty policy treated pregnant workers and non-pregnant workers alike, the policy did not violate the PDA.  The court agreed with other courts that have found that the PDA does not require employers to offer maternity leave or to take other steps to make it easier for pregnant women to work.  All it requires, the court held, was that pregnant workers be treated the same as those who are not pregnant.  UPS’s policy treated pregnant employees the same as, for example, an employee who was injured off the job—neither would be eligible for light duty work.

The court also found that Young did not even have a prima facie case of sex discrimination because she could not show that similarly-situated employees who were not pregnant received more favorable treatment.  Young attempted to compare herself with employees covered by the light duty policy: employees with a disability under the ADA, those injured on the job, and drivers who had lost their certification due to medical reasons.  The court rejected this comparison.  It noted that a pregnant worker with a lifting restriction such as Young’s was not similar to an employee with a disability under the ADA because Young’s limitation was temporary and not a significant restriction on major life activities.  A pregnant worker is not similar to an employee injured on the job because, presumably, the pregnancy did not occur on the job.  Finally, the court rejected a comparison to a driver who had lost certification because in that case, unlike pregnancy, there is a legal obstacle to performing the job.  Also, drivers who have lost their certification can still perform a number of physically-demanding tasks.

Although this case is important to employers as an example of how a pregnancy discrimination case is analyzed, readers should note one significant fact about Young v. UPS.  This case was brought before the ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) took effect in 2008, so the court did not consider how the case would have been decided under the newer legislation.  But, because the ADAAA has greatly eased the burden on a plaintiff to show that an impairment “substantially limits” a major activity, it is possible that this case would have had a different outcome under the newer law.

If you have any question whether an employee is disabled under the ADAAA or whether your own policy towards pregnant workers complies with the PDA, you should consult your legal counsel.

Mark Jeffries focuses his practice in the area of labor and employment law. He has represented employers in wrongful discharge and discrimination cases in state and federal court, as well as before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.
 
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