Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Rejection of "Plain Meaning" in Young v. United Parcel Service

By a vote of 6 to 3, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Peggy Young in her lawsuit against United Parcel Service under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. However, all nine justices of the Supreme Court rejected the "plain meaning" interpretation of the law that she proposed.

Peggy Young was a driver for the United Parcel Service. As part of her job responsibilities she was required to be able to lift 70 pounds. Young became pregnant and was advised by her doctor that she could lift no more than 20 pounds during the pregnancy. As a result UPS suspended her for the duration of the pregnancy.

UPS grants accommodations such as "light duty" or "inside jobs" to three categories of injured workers: those who are injured on the job; those who incur disabilities that must be accommodated under the Americans with Disability Act; and those who incur injuries or medical conditions that disqualify them from certification as drivers under Department of Transportation regulations.

Ms. Young sued UPS on the theory that by granting work accommodations to other categories of injured workers but not to pregnant employees UPS had violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is one part of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which is codified at 42 U.S.C. 2000e. Section 2000e-2 prohibits employers from discriminating "against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin ...."

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act consists of two clauses. The first clause makes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy a form of sex discrimination. The second clause requires employers to treat pregnant workers the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Here is the text of the PDA:
The terms "because of sex" or "on the basis of sex" include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work .... (42 U.S.C. 2000e(k))
Young focused on the second clause of the PDA:
women affected by pregnancy ... shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes ... as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.
Young took the position that the meaning of this portion of the statute is crystal clear: that under the law, if one group of workers is granted "light duty" or "inside work" because of a medical condition that temporarily limits their ability to work, then pregnant workers must be granted the same accommodations.

Six of the justices ruled in favor of Ms. Young and reversed the decision of the Fourth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings. However, none of the justices accepted her reading of the statute.

The six justices who ruled in favor of Young pointed out that while Young was being treated differently than other drivers who had sustained temporary injuries on the job, she was being treated the same as workers who sustained temporarily disabling injuries or illnesses outside of work. The "plain meaning" of the law therefore could not be determined with certainty. Five of the justices, in an opinion by Justice Breyer, interpreted the second clause of the Act to require that on remand the courts must determine whether UPS's reasons for not granting accommodations to pregnant workers were "sufficiently strong" to justify treating them differently. Justice Alito, who concurred in the judgment, ruled that UPS had legitimate reasons to treat pregnant workers different than workers who had been injured on the job and workers who had disabilities under the ADA, but that UPS did not have a legitimate reason to treat pregnant workers different than drivers who had lost DOT certification due to a medical condition.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Kennedy in dissent, interpreted the second clause of the PDA to simply be "explanatory" of the first clause. In effect Justice Scalia would limit the scope of the PDA to situations where employers granted benefits to broad categories of workers with disabling conditions but explicitly excluded pregnant workers from those benefits.

Justice Kennedy joined Justice Scalia's dissent but wrote separately to express his view that employers should voluntarily take steps to recruit, accommodate, and retain pregnant employees, and expressed support for other federal and state laws that would extend protection for pregnant workers. He stated:
These Acts honor and safeguard the important contributions women make to both the workplace and the American family.
From a jurisprudential standpoint, this case represents a situation where none of the justices of the Supreme Court relied upon the "plain meaning" of the statute to resolve the case.

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