Article Title

Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.: McDonnell Douglas to the Rescue?

Publication Title

Washington University Law Review


The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 can be interpreted in two obvious ways: one interpretation requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees, and the other does not require such accommodations. In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Supreme Court held that in some cases employees may be able to prove intentional pregnancy discrimination based on an employer’s failure to make accommodations for the pregnant employee when the employer makes accommodations for other disabled employees. Rather than reaching this result by interpreting the statute to require reasonable accommodations, however, the Court held that plaintiffs with “indirect evidence” of discrimination may prove their claim using the pretext analysis developed by the Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Under this analysis, the Court instructed that, after the first two stages of the analysis, a plaintiff could attempt to prove that the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for denying an accommodation for a pregnant employee is pretextual, and this could be proven by demonstrating the significant and unjustified burden the employer’s nonaccommodation policy imposes on pregnant employees. Although it seems that the Court resorted to McDonnell Douglas as a compromise to fashion a majority opinion, this essay contends that invocation of the McDonnell Douglas analysis was neither necessary nor prudent. There are two likely ramifications of the Court’s use of the McDonnell Douglas analysis. The first is that the Young opinion is likely to resurrect the division of intentional discrimination claims between those based on direct evidence and those based on circumstantial evidence, with the claims in those two categories being analyzed differently. That is a distinction that the Court rejected in 2003 in Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa. Second, the Court’s resort to the McDonnell Douglas analysis refortifies a proof framework which arguably should not have survived the Desert Palace decision and which has constrained the robust development of employment discrimination law by forcing evidence in most cases into proxy questions or categories that have only a tangential relationship to the ultimate issue of discrimination. Too many claims in employment discrimination law are forced into the McDonnell Douglas analysis, which often serves to obscure the actual issues presented. Neither of the foregoing potential ramifications is a good development for employment discrimination law. Young v. UPS could—and should—have been resolved without resort to McDonnell Douglas.