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Supreme Court and Equality

Today, the United States Supreme Court issued two opinions, both 5-4 decisions with the majority opinion authored by Justice Breyer, in cases involving equality issues.

The first case, Young vs. United Parcel Service, involved Title VII (precluding discrimination in employment based on race or gender).  Specifically, it involved the interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act — an amendment to Title VII passed in the 1970s after the Supreme Court had originally ruled that discriminating based on the fact that an employee was pregnant or might get pregnant was not discrimination based on gender.  The generally understood intent of Congress was that an employer could not discriminate against an employee simply because the employee was pregnant or might get pregnant.  The particular provision at issue in the case was the requirement that employers had to treat pregnant workers the same as other workers who are similar in their ability to work or not work.  The employee in this case had a medical restriction due to her pregnancy that limited the weight that she could lift.  This weight limit was less than what UPS expected its drivers to be able to lift; so the employee asked for the company to accommodate her condition, but UPS refused.  The employee claimed that the decision violated Title VII because UPS was willing to make that accommodation for other drivers who had a medical restriction.

The majority (by one vote) decided in favor of the employee.  But rather than following the spirit of the law — requiring an accommodation unless it was unreasonable if the employer granted a similar accommodation to other workers — the majority crafted a balancing test to determine what workers are similar.  Under this balancing test, the fact that an employer was willing to accept a medical restriction for other workers (for example, one who got injured on the job) would merely be one factor in determining whether the distinction that the employer makes between pregnancy and other conditions that require accommodation is based on a  legitimate reasons or whether the reason given seems to be a pretext for discriminating against pregnant women.

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