Pregnancy Discrimination Claim Reversed

By Robert N. Dare May 18, 2016
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The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applied the holding of the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, ruling that an employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) under Title VII by denying a plaintiff an accommodation of light duty required by her pregnancy while offering light-duty assignments to workers with occupational injuries. It did not matter that only one pregnant employee was ever denied accommodation and that state law required the employer to pay occupationally injured workers their wages while they were unable to perform their regular jobs. 

Ann Marie Legg, a corrections officer for the Ulster County Jail, became pregnant in 2008 and requested an accommodation of light duty. The county policy provided that employees injured on the job were eligible for light-duty assignments, defined as clerical and other duties that would not aggravate the employee’s condition and that the policy did not apply to pregnant employees because their condition did not result from a line‐of‐duty injury.

Initially, Legg was assigned light-duty work, but she was gradually required to work with inmates again. After being bumped by one of the inmates, Legg elected to leave work and did not return until after she had given birth. When she returned, she filed suit against the county and officials alleging that the denial of her request for an accommodation amounted to pregnancy discrimination. The district court granted the county’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, concluding that by requiring that the injury arise when the employee is on duty, the policy applies across the board to everybody; thus, there is no discrimination. The plaintiff appealed.

During the pendency of appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Young, which involved similar facts. Peggy Young was given a lifting restriction by her doctor due to her pregnancy and requested a light-duty accommodation. The request was denied by the company because its policy provided accommodations only to employees who were injured on the job, who had lost their Department of Transportation certification or who had a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Young sued for pregnancy discrimination.

The Supreme Court held that in order to have a claim, Young had to show that 1) she belongs to the protected class, 2) she sought accommodation, 3) the employer did not accommodate her, and 4) the employer did accommodate others similar in their ability or inability to work. The court noted that “an employer violates the PDA when it treats pregnant employees ‘less favorably’ than nonpregnant employees similar in their ability or inability to work to such an extent that it is more likely than not that the disparity is motivated by intentional discrimination.” Moreover, the court concluded, “an employer’s facially neutral accommodation policy gives rise to an inference of pregnancy discrimination if it imposes a significant burden (emphasis added) on pregnant employees that is not justified by the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation.” And, the court explained, the employer cannot defend itself by arguing that similarly accommodating pregnant women is too expensive or too inconvenient.

Turning back to Legg, the 2nd Circuit concluded that under the principles established by Young, Legg presented sufficient evidence to support a pregnancy discrimination claim. The court explained that the county’s failure to accommodate her while it provided light-duty accommodations to other employees who were similar in their ability or inability to work was enough, if unexplained, for a reasonable jury to conclude that the policy was more likely than not motivated by a discriminatory intent.

With regard to the showing of a “significant burden,” the court noted that “a reasonable jury could conclude that the county imposed a significant burden on pregnant employees because, like [United Parcel Service], it categorically denied light-duty accommodations to pregnant women.”

The county argued that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its policy: compliance with New York state law, which “requires municipalities to continue to pay corrections officers injured on the job but does not require the same for employees who become unable to work for other reasons.” However, the court opined that a jury could find that reason pretextual because:

  • The justification was not offered at trial.
  • Any alleged burden on the jail was refuted by the fact that 176 corrections officers had received light-duty accommodations and Legg was the only pregnant officer to request light duty.
  • Legg was significantly burdened by the forced choice of unpaid leave or risk to her health.

Ultimately, the court vacated the district court’s decision and remanded the case with instructions for a new trial.

Legg v. Ulster County, 2nd Cir., No. 14-3636 (April 26, 2016).

Professional Pointer

Employers should proceed cautiously and evaluate whether they are willing to litigate the denial of light duty to a pregnant employee while offering it to other employees.

Robert N. Dare is an attorney with Pilchak & Cohen, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Auburn Hills, Mich.

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