The 11th Circuit Court’s recent decision in Durham v. Rural/Metro Corporation illustrates just how easy it is for a plaintiff to establish a claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s warning in Young v. UPS. In Young v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 575 U.S. 206 (2015), the Court explained that a pregnant employee may prevail on a claim under the PDA by showing that the employer accommodates such a large percentage of non-pregnant employees that a jury could find the employer intentionally discriminated against pregnant employees. But the Supreme Court relegated that factual issue to the analysis of whether the employer’s policy of accommodating only on-the-job injuries was pretext for discrimination. (See our blog post on Young v. UPS HERE.)
In Durham, a pregnant emergency medical technician (EMT) received restrictions limiting her to lifting no more than 50 pounds, rendering her unable to perform her job duties. The employer had previously created temporary positions or provided light-duty reassignments to employees subject to lift restrictions, but only when such restrictions were necessitated by on-the-job injuries. The EMT was not accommodated under this facially neutral policy.
The Durham court applied a modified burden-shifting framework. The plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by showing she was pregnant, the employer denied her request for accommodation, and the employer provided accommodations to non-pregnant employees similar in their ability or inability to work. The employer may then proffer a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason explaining why the accommodation was denied. A plaintiff may then demonstrate that reason is pretextual by showing that the neutral policy “imposes a significant burden on pregnant workers” and that the legitimate nondiscriminatory reason is not sufficiently strong to justify that burden. Because the district court granted summary judgment without fully considering the issue of pretext, summary judgment was vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings.
The lesson? Facially neutral policies resulting in a discriminatory impact may, if insufficiently explained, give rise to a discriminatory inference. If a neutral policy produces discriminatory results, employers should assess the policy’s justifications and consider alternative solutions.