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Supreme Court decisions this term could affect discrimination claims

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide cases on pregnancy and religious discrimination in the workplace.

Most employers and employees are aware that it is against the law to discriminate against employees based on a protected status, which includes race, color, religion, sex and national origin. As later amended, federal law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical expenses. In practice, however, the line between legitimate business interests and illegal discrimination can be blurry.

Two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this term may have a large affect on certain discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The two involve pregnancy discrimination and discrimination based on religious affiliation.

Pregnancy discrimination

The pregnancy discrimination case has already affected the policy of the nation's largest private carrier organization. In the case, Young v. United Parcel Service, a worker filed a discrimination lawsuit against the giant delivery service because UPS refused to give the employee "light duty" work while pregnant, as UPS does for injured and disabled workers. On the same day as it filed its brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, UPS held that moving forward it would allow pregnant workers to move to light duty assignments. Despite the change in policy, UPS is still arguing that it did not previously violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act when it refused to allow the worker to change to light duty.

UPS won at district court, as the judge held that UPS policy was "gender neutral" and based on whether the employee was injured and could not perform job duties - not discrimination based on pregnancy. The appellate court upheld the ruling.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether pregnant workers should be treated similarly to workers injured on the job. Several states, including New Jersey, have also recently passed laws regarding making reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers in the workplace, although that is not at issue in the case before the Supreme Court.

Discrimination based on religious affiliation

In another case, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, a manager at the fashion store did not hire a Muslim woman who wore a head scarf to her interview. Abercrombie does not allow employees to wear hats to work. After her interview, she scored low on the "appearance and sense of style" category in her evaluation. Abercrombie is arguing that they did not know she was Muslim and therefore did not discriminate against her based on her religion. The federal trial court held that the company did know she was Muslim and therefore violated the law. However, an appeals court dismissed the lawsuit because during the application she never indicated to management that she wore the scarf for religious reasons. The case should have implications on when an applicant must disclose his or her religious affiliation when its practices violate company policy.

Proving discrimination in court

As demonstrated by these cases, there can be gray areas of the law when it comes to discrimination in the workplace. New Jersey workers who feel they have experienced illegal discrimination in the workplace should contact the experienced employment law attorney Philip B. Vinick to discuss their legal options and to get help in bringing a claim.

Keywords: Discrimination, employment law, pregnancy, religious affiliation