Young v. UPS – The Solicitor General (and EEOC) Get Caught Overreaching
Despite how it may read on its face, the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. United Parcel Service is not as far-reaching in some jurisdictions, such as California, as one may expect. In fact, a solid argument can be made that the Supreme Court decision mirrors California law requiring employers to give pregnant women on the job accommodations (such a light duty assignments) just as for other workers injured on the job.
There is one aspect of the decision that is potentially useful in the future – Justice Breyer’s skeptical treatment of the EEOC’s assertion that its guidelines addressing the issue should be given great deference. While the Young case was working its way through the courts, the EEOC adopted a new guideline that “an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries.” [2 EEOC Compliance Manual § 626-I(A)(5) pg. 626:0028] And, by the time the Young case was orally argued in December, 2014, viola! The new guidelines were in place, giving the Solicitor General (supporting Young’s position) new ammunition. In short, Justice Breyer warned them “not so fast”, and if for no other reason, the opinion is worth reading.
First, while courts may resort to the EEOC for guidance, the weight of such judgment will depend on the EEOC’s thoroughness, the validity of its reasoning, and its consistency with previous guidelines. For these criteria, Justice Breyer dusted off a 1944 case outside the employment world. Then, applying those factors, Justice Breyer then pointed out the elephant in the room, specifically that the EEOC was adopting these new guidelines during the pendency of the Young case and that its previous guidelines (i.e., the guidelines that applied at the time of UPS’ personnel actions in that case) were silent. Adding to the well-deserved skepticism, Justice Breyer then cited the federal government’s amicus brief from a Sixth Circuit decision from 1996 in which the government advocated that a pregnant employee of the postal service with work limitations was not similarly situated to employees with similar limitations caused by on the job injuries.
The discussion of the Solicitor General’s argument ended with this rhetorical question: “Why has it now taken a position contrary to the litigation position the Government previously took?” And the common sense answer: “Without further explanation, we cannot rely significantly on the EEOC’s determination.”
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