On August 16, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a decision in EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. (found here), holding that Wal-Mart did not discriminate against pregnant employees by reserving temporary light duty positions only for those employees injured on the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) commenced its action against Wal-Mart in 2018 by claiming that Wal-Mart’s denial of temporary light duty work to pregnant women violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The federal district court granted Wal-Mart summary judgment dismissing the EEOC’s lawsuit. The EEOC then appealed the federal district court’s dismissal of its case to the Seventh Circuit. The EEOC argued that accommodating all employees injured on the job by providing these employees a temporary light duty position and not providing a similar accommodation to pregnant employees constituted a clear case of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII and the PDA. The Seventh Circuit disagreed.
If this fact scenario sounds vaguely familiar, it should, because in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court addressed similar facts in Young v. UPS. In the Young case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided whether the PDA allows an employer to have a policy that accommodates some, but not all, workers with non-pregnancy related disabilities but does not accommodate pregnancy-related conditions. In Young, UPS offered temporary light duty positions to not only employees injured on the job, but also for other reasons, including those employees who had lost their Department of Transportation certification. The employee in Young argued that employers who provide work accommodations to non-pregnant employees must do the same for pregnant employees who are similarly restricted in their ability to work. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, rejected the employee’s interpretation of the PDA since it essentially would give pregnant employees an unconditional “most-favored-nations” status because pregnant employees would have to receive the same accommodations that any other employee received for any reason. Congress never intended to provide pregnant employees such broad protections.
Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court in Young held that a pregnant employee can establish a case of pregnancy discrimination relative to an employer’s application of its light duty policy by showing, among other things, that the employer provided light duty positions to others (i.e., non-pregnant employees) similar in their ability or inability to work. If an employee can establish this critical element of her prima facie case of discrimination (the “first step”), then the burden shifts to the employer (the “second step”) to articulate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” business reason for denying the accommodation. An employee can then overcome the employer’s legitimate business reason by showing (the “third step”) that the employer provided favorable treatment to some non-pregnant employees whose circumstances cannot be distinguished from that of pregnant employees.
In defending its temporary light duty program before the Seventh Circuit, Wal-Mart presented a legitimate business reason by arguing that its program is part of its overall worker’s compensation program to bring injured employees back to work as soon as possible while limiting the company’s “legal exposure” under Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation statute and to avoid the cost of hiring people to replace the injured employee. The Seventh Circuit found that offering temporary light duty work to employees injured on the job for these reasons was a “legitimate nondiscriminatory” and neutral justification for denying light duty accommodations to individuals not injured on the job, including pregnant women. According to the Seventh Circuit, Wal-Mart’s articulation of a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason supporting the business purpose of its temporary light duty program then shifted the burden to the employee to provide sufficient evidence that Wal-Mart’s policy imposed a significant burden on pregnant employees and that the employer’s legitimate business reason was not sufficiently strong to support that burden.
The EEOC argued, however, that Wal-Mart did not meet its burden under the second step (making the third step unnecessary) because the PDA and the Young decision required employers to do more than simply establish that their light duty policy was designed to benefit a particular group of non-pregnant employees. Instead, the EEOC argued, the PDA and the Young decision required employers to meet a higher burden under the second step by requiring employers to explain why pregnant employees are excluded from the program, just not articulate a justification that the program benefited a particular group of non-pregnant employees when, according to the EEOC, Wal-Mart’s light duty program could have easily accommodated pregnant employees. The Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument and called it a stretch to hold that the Congress intended such a heightened burden under the PDA.
The Seventh Circuit held that its decision was consistent with the requirements of the PDA that provides that pregnant women must be “treated the same” as others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The Seventh Circuit also found that its decision was aligned with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Young because unlike Wal-Mart’s policy, UPS’s light duty policy seemed to accommodate almost every other group of employees with lifting restrictions, not just those inured on the job (like Wal-Mart’s), who were similar to pregnant employees in their ability or inability to work. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, limited application of its light duty policy exclusively to those employees who were injured on the job. The Seventh Circuit stated that the EEOC fell short in establishing disparate treatment discrimination because the EEOC could not offer evidence of comparators who were similar to pregnant women in their ability or inability to work and who benefited from the light duty program, other than employees injured on the job.
In designing a temporary light duty policy for employees injured on the job, employers should be mindful that it is important to develop a strong “legitimate and nondiscriminatory” basis that properly articulates the business reason why the policy is designed to protect a limited class of employees (e.g., employees injured on the job) to the exclusion of others in order to avoid claims of sex discrimination under Title VII and the PDA when pregnant employees are denied accommodations under the policy. It is also important for employers to consistently apply their temporary light duty policies in a non-discriminatory manner by allowing only employees for which the policy was legitimately designed to seek accommodations under the policy— specifically, those employees suffering on-the-job injuries. Also, making exceptions to a temporary light duty policy designed to benefit employees injured on the job or designing a light duty policy that applies to broad categories of other employees can make such a policy susceptible to a claim of sex discrimination under Title VII and the PDA if it does not treat pregnant women the same as other employees not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.
As always, O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman, DeJong & Laing S.C. is here for you to protect your interests. We encourage you to reach out to our labor and employment law team with any questions, concerns, or legal issues related to temporary light duty policies in the workplace.