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Pregnant workers backed by U.S. Supreme Court in UPS case

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The U.S. Supreme Court backed the rights of pregnant workers, reviving a lawsuit by a former United Parcel Service Inc. driver who left her job when the company wouldn’t provide the less strenuous work recommended by her doctor.

The justices, voting 6-3, sent the case back for a possible trial, which would center on UPS’s reasons for refusing to accommodate Peggy Young’s needs while giving temporary assignments to workers recovering from on-the-job injuries.

The ruling is the Supreme Court’s first since 1991 on employers’ duties toward pregnant workers. Although it may have limited significance going forward because of legal changes at the state and federal level, the case touched on issues that have driven a wedge through the court and American society.

The justices divided to some degree along ideological lines. The court’s three women -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- joined Justice Stephen Breyer in the majority, as did two Republican appointees, Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Writing for the court, Breyer said the lower court that threw out the suit should have scrutinized UPS’s justification for accommodating other workers.

“Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant workers as well?” Breyer wrote.

‘Middle ground’

The opinion adopted what Kagan characterized during arguments in December as a “middle ground” approach, rejecting more sweeping contentions from both sides. Because lower courts had generally backed employers on the issue, it gives some pregnant workers a new avenue to win cases.

UPS (NYSE: UPS) contended that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act leaves room for companies to have neutral policies like seniority systems and special preferences for workers who are injured on the job.

“UPS is pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the argument that UPS’s pregnancy-neutral policy was inherently discriminatory,” the Atlanta-based delivery business said in a statement. The company said it was confident the lower courts “will find that UPS did not discriminate against Ms. Young under this newly announced standard.”

Young’s lawyer, Samuel Bagenstos, said companies will be hard-pressed to justify not giving pregnant workers the same sorts of accommodations as other groups of employees.

“We basically got to the place where we wanted to go, even if the court chose a route that wasn’t our first choice route for how to get there,” Bagenstos said in an interview.

Heavy lift

Young worked at a UPS facility in Landover, Maryland. Her job required her to load packages onto vehicles and deliver them to their destination. Although she says the vast majority of those packages were envelope-size, her job description required her to lift parcels of up to 70 pounds.

In 2006, Young became pregnant after in vitro fertilization. Her doctor and midwife said she shouldn’t lift objects weighing more than 20 pounds during the first half of the pregnancy or more than 10 pounds for the rest.

She says UPS refused to accommodate her needs either by adjusting her job responsibilities or by temporarily assigning her to a position that didn’t require heavy lifting.

She went on an unpaid leave of absence and returned to work after her baby was born. Young later left UPS and sued the company for compensation.

Seniority system

UPS says it was simply abiding by its seniority system and union contract, which makes no provision for pregnant employees with physical limitations. The union agreement called for reassignments to be available to workers with job-related injuries and those considered permanently disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The accord also made provisions for people who lost their federal driver’s certification, letting them temporarily take jobs that don’t involve operating a vehicle.

The company shifted its policy after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. UPS says it now treats pregnant employees in need of special accommodations the same as workers with on-the-job injuries, giving them light-duty assignments if available. Young, now 43, continued to press her case in an effort to win damages.

UPS said one reason for the change was the increasing number of states that require accommodations for pregnant workers. At least nine states will have those requirements, up from one at the time of Young’s pregnancy.

Federal aid

Rights for pregnant workers may be broader under federal law in the future as well. The Obama administration says a 2008 amendment to the federal disabilities law may give additional protections to women whose pregnancies limit their activities.

The amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, provides protections for workers with temporary disabilities that aren’t connected to on-the-job injuries. The change also expands the definition of disability to make clear that an inability to lift, stand or bend is covered.

Because the UPS dispute predated that amendment, Young wasn’t able to invoke it in her case, and the Supreme Court didn’t consider it.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says employers must treat pregnant workers the same as other employees “not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Breyer said each of the litigants -- UPS, Young and the Obama administration -- had misinterpreted that clause. His opinion instead adopted what he said was a familiar approach used by courts with other types of job-discrimination lawsuits.

Discrimination pretext

Breyer said judges should assess an employer’s explanation for treating workers differently and determine whether those reasons were a pretext for discrimination.

Breyer said plaintiffs can use “circumstantial proof to rebut an employer’s apparently legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.” He also said employers won’t be able to claim that accommodating pregnant workers is too costly or inconvenient.

Breyer told the appeals court to determine whether Young had shown enough evidence of pretext to warrant taking the case to trial.

“The Supreme Court has made clear that federal law mandates employers to accommodate pregnant women on the same terms as everyone else,” Carol Robles-Roman, president of the women’s-rights group Legal Momentum, said in a statement.

Alito didn’t join Breyer’s reasoning, writing separately to explain his views.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the majority departed from the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s text.

“The court seems to think our task is to craft a policy- driven compromise between the possible readings of the law, like a congressional conference committee reconciling House and Senate versions of a bill,” Scalia wrote.

The case is Young v. UPS, 12-1226.

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