Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Supreme Court takes a (small) stand in favor of pregnant women, and it's (real) news


Peggy Young with her daughter Triniti, now seven

"The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a woman who was faced with the choice to either work her labor-intensive job during pregnancy at the United Parcel Service or go on unpaid leave without benefits. In an opinion issued Wednesday morning, the justices ruled 6-3 that Young should at least be given a full opportunity to make her case in court that she was not given the same accommodation as other employees considered injured or disabled."

by Ken

They didn't do all that much for the petitioner. In fact, you could describe it as what most observers would have considered the very least they could, in good conscience, have done. Be that as it may, though, it counts for something that the Roberts Court -- with, in fact, Chief Justice "Smirkin' John" Roberts voting in the minority -- ruled today, in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals erred in refusing to allow Peggy Young to present her case to the court that UPS had violated the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act by refusing to allow her to go on "light duty" during her pregnancy.

Still, the High Court at least did that much. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by the three other moderate justices and Chief Justice Roberts, "Ultimately the court must determine whether the nature of the employer's policy and the way in which it burdens pregnant women shows that the employer has engaged in intentional discrimination." (Kind of amazingly, Justice "Sammy the Hammer" Alito also sided with the plaintiff, accounting for the 6-3 vote, but had to offer a concurring opinion to explain how you get to that point in Hammerland. I assume you don't need to be told who the left-behind "3" are.)

Let's let ThinkProgress's Nicole Flatow summarize the case:
Young was tasked with lifting boxes as heavy as 70 pounds in her job as a UPS worker. When she got pregnant, her midwife recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds, and wrote a note asking her employer to put her on light duty. Had Young been written a similar note because Young broke her arm carrying boxes, or suffered from a disability, UPS would have put her on what is known as “light duty.” But UPS wouldn’t do it for Young on account of her pregnancy. The alternative was to take unpaid leave without medical benefits.
It shouldn't come as a titanic shock that the Fourth Circuit said "F.U." to the plaintiff. There's been personnel movement since the late Sen. Jesse Helms was forced to give up his guardianship of Big No. 4, but his spirit still hovers over it. And the mighty Fourth decided, as Nicole puts it, "that granting 'light duty' to Young would give pregnant employees an advantage over other other employees and that Young didn't suffer pregnancy discrimination," and couldn't for the life of it think why the bitch plaintiff should be allowed "to go to trial and prove all the elements of her claim."

That's the "oops" the High Court today declared on the Fourth Circuit.

"The Pregnancy Discrimination Act," Nicole explains (links onsite),
prohibits employers from treating pregnant women differently from other employees who are “similar in their ability, or inability, to work.” The act was passed in response to rampant mistreatment and misperceptions of women workers. But these misperceptions persist, even as women now make up about half of the workforce and a large proportion of them will either leave the workforce at some point to have a child, or may be viewed as a woman with the potential to one day leave the workforce for that reason.

In fact, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging pregnancy discrimination have only increased, prompting the Commission to remind employers recently that they still can’t discriminate against pregnant women.

As a group of women’s advocacy groups and law professors pointed out in their brief, a ruling against Young would have harmed the women most in need of pregnancy discrimination protection — those in “low-wage jobs and traditionally male-dominated occupations who are most likely to experience temporary conflicts between the physical effects of pregnancy and job requirements,” and who already experience disproportionate discrimination, according to recent statistics.
Which brings us to the counter-arguments brought before the Supreme Court. Um, well, and this is kind of embarrassing for the judges of the Fourth Circuit, there don't seem to have been any.
UPS didn’t have many advocates in this case other than the federal appeals court judges. Briefs filed on behalf of state and local lawmakers, national medical associations, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Solicitor General, and even 23 pro-life organizations defended Young’s right to a work accommodation. They said the Fourth Circuit’s ruling was counter to the intent of anti-discrimination laws, that it was bad for the health of mothers and children, that it was bad for the economy, bad for business, and even could encourage women to get abortions. In all, 11 amicus briefs were filed supporting Young and none supporting UPS.
Then comes one of my favorite touches:
Even the members of Congress who passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act explained that they intended for the act the court was interpreting to protect people just like Young, and that the court ruling against her “ignored the unambiguous mandate of the PDA requiring employees to consider only the ability or inability to work in determining a pregnant worker’s entitlement to benefits.”
Oh my! If the question was what's covered by the PDA, and you know, it kind of was, then you might think the case should have been open-and-shut. As long as you bear in mind that this Court only considers the actually expressed intent of Congress that actually expressed intent reinforces the justices' personal blind prejudices.

Nicole notes that today's ruling, "as expected by many advocates," was "rather narrow in its holding," and it's not just that the ruling gave Peggy Young nothing more than the right to make her case in court. In addition, the ruling --
took into account neither a 2008 change to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, nor new 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines that bolster protections for pregnant women. What’s more, UPS announced since Young’s lawsuit that it would change its policy going forward and allow workers to stay on the job performing light-duty work.
But the ruling is important nevertheless.
[T]he National Women’s Law Center’s Emily Martin told ThinkProgress earlier this year that any ruling for Young would help many pregnant women. “Even if the law has changed, it will only make it easier for those women,” Martin said. A recent survey by NWLC found that many women who felt they needed to alter their work duties or take more frequent breaks still fear requesting those accommodations.

What’s more, the ruling comes as a sigh of relief to many who worried about what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to as the court’s “blind spot” on women’s issues. In 2007, the court’s five conservative male justices rejected Lilly Ledbetter’s fair pay lawsuit, in a decision later overturned by an act of Congress. In 2011, they turned back the largest-ever class of women alleging gender discrimination by Wal-Mart. And in 2013, that same voting bloc held that many corporations get to decide when their female employees should have access to contraception. Commenting on this blind spot, Ginsburg said in an interview recently, “[T]he justices continue to think and change so I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.”
Well, in this case two of the Court's right-wing extremists went off the reservation. (Note that "Slow Anthony" Kennedy, wearing his right-wing-extremist robe, stayed behind, as the sole support for the Scalia-Thomas axis.) That counts for something, no? If only for a day.

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