High court sides with U-M Law professor

The Supreme Court of the United States upheld pregnant women’s rights in the workplace last week with its ruling on Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS), a pregnancy discrimination case argued by Michigan Law Professor Sam Bagenstos.

“The Court made clear that employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience when they accommodate other workers,” said Bagenstos, who represented plaintiff Peggy Young before the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 3, 2014.

Before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was passed in 1978, pregnancy discrimination in the workforce had been overt and was blatantly expressed by employers, many of whom had policies in place that forced women to quit their jobs when they became pregnant, regardless of their ability to work, said Professor Sam Bagenstos.

“Pregnancy was the moment where we enforced in the labor system the idea that women basically had to make a choice between working and parenthood, and motherhood was the preferred choice,” Bagenstos, the Frank G. Millard Professor of Law, told a Michigan Law audience that gathered March 16 to learn about the case. “The fulcrum of sex discrimination in the workforce in the United States was pregnancy discrimination for a very long time.”

In 2006, UPS denied Young the light-duty work she requested during her pregnancy. While such assignments were available, and given to some workers with similar restrictions, UPS denied Young and placed her on unpaid leave.

“This is what pregnancy discrimination looks like in America right now,” Bagenstos said of the case. While forcing pregnant women to leave their jobs “happens a lot less now, what do­­­­­es happen is that employers refuse to give pregnant workers the same kind of accommodations they give to people with other kinds of conditions.”

District and appeals courts ruled against Young in her attempts to seek back pay and damages.

However, in a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Young, and plaintiffs like her, can win employment discrimination lawsuits if they can show that an employer refused to provide accommodation available to a large number of similar workers and that the employer lacked sufficiently strong reasons for denying the accommodation. Cost and inconvenience are not among these reasons, the Court wrote.

“The Court recognized that a ruling for UPS would have thwarted Congress’s intent in passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” said Bagenstos, an expert in civil rights and employment discrimination law, and the former number-two official in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. “It’s a big step forward towards enforcing the principle that a woman shouldn’t have to choose between her pregnancy and her job.”

Vacating the decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court with specific guidelines that now allow Young to sue under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.

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