March 25, 2015 5:00 PM, EDT

Pregnant-Worker Rights Backed by Supreme Court in UPS Case

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The U.S. Supreme Court backed the rights of pregnant workers, reviving a lawsuit by a former United Parcel Service Inc. driver who had to leave her job after her doctor recommended she not lift heavy items.

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

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. A federal appeals court had backed UPS and thrown out the suit.

“UPS is pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the argument that UPS's pregnancy-neutral policy was inherently discriminatory. Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims without ruling for either party, and sent the case back to the lower courts for further consideration under the new standard. We are confident that those courts will find that UPS did not discriminate against Ms. Young under this newly announced standard,” the company said in a statement.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower court should have assessed UPS’s justification for accommodating other workers.

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

The court’s three women — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — joined Breyer in the majority, as did Republican-appointed Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. Alito didn’t join Breyer’s reasoning, writing separately to explain his views.

The ruling is the Supreme Court’s first since 1991 on employers’ duties toward their pregnant workers.

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, and 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. She later left UPS.

Young sued the company for compensation, claiming it had violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

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

Rights for pregnant workers may be even broader going forward. The Obama administration says a 2008 amendment to the federal disabilities law may give additional protections to women whose pregnancies limit their activities.

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 case is Young v. UPS, 12-1226.