Peggy Young, who says she was discriminated against because she became pregnant, speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Dec. 3, 2014. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday clarified the legal protections for pregnant workers who believe their employers have discriminated against them and revived the lawsuit of a former United Parcel Service worker who did not receive the accommodation she requested.

The court ruled 6 to 3 that Peggy Young, who worked for the company in Landover, Md., should get another chance to show that UPS was wrong to force her to take an unpaid leave rather than give her the lighter duty her doctor had said was appropriate.

Lower courts had agreed with UPS that it was not in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act because it provided light-
duty work only to other categories of workers: those who had been injured on the job, had a condition covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act or lost their license to drive a commercial vehicle.

The 1978 act, passed in reaction to a previous Supreme Court ruling, made clear that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.” It also directs employers to treat pregnant employees the same “as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer acknowledged the difficulty a court could encounter in trying to implement that second clause. But one consideration should be “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?” he wrote.

Young, now 43, was at work at her current job as a warehouse associate when she heard the news of the Supreme Court decision and burst into “tears of joy.”

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “This is nowhere close to being over, but it’s very positive not just for me, but for all women. It’s good to know that we’re finally moving in the right direction, where a woman shouldn’t have to be forced to choose between starting a family and keeping her job.”

The majority decision reflected Justice Elena Kagan’s search during oral arguments for a middle ground. She seemed to think Young should be allowed to continue her lawsuit with specific allegations about the company’s different treatment of workers and also allow the company to justify why the workers are treated differently.

Breyer laid it out this way: A worker making a claim that her company intentionally treated her differently due to her pregnancy must show that she sought an accommodation, her company refused and then granted accommodations to others suffering from similar restrictions.

The company, in turn, can try to show that its reasons were legitimate — but not because it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the categories of workers who are accommodated.

Young told UPS supervisors after she became pregnant in 2006 that her doctor had recommended she not lift packages heavier than 20 pounds — and later in her pregnancy, 10 pounds. Her early-morning shifts for the most part required her to deliver only letters and small packages, but her supervisor told her that the ability to lift heavier objects was a condition of employment.

Her request for lighter duty was turned down as inconsistent with UPS policy.

Young took an unpaid leave from work, a period during which she did not receive medical benefits. She returned after delivering her daughter, Triniti. But she later filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and then she sued in federal court. She left UPS in 2009.

UPS has since changed its policy and will allow lighter duty for pregnant workers.

Befitting a case where the court looked for middle ground, both sides professed happiness with the ruling.

“UPS won in all the lower courts, and the Supreme Court said in a 6-to-3 decision that Peggy Young’s case should be allowed to proceed, so we think of it as a big victory,” said Sam Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former Justice Department civil rights official who argued Young’s case before the court.

UPS, for its part, said it was “pleased” that the court did not find its policy at the time was inherently discriminatory.

“We are confident that [lower] courts will find that UPS did not discriminate against Ms. Young under this newly announced standard,” UPS spokeswoman Kara Gerhardt Ross said in a statement.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a sarcastic dissent saying that, faced with two possible readings of the law, the majority had made up its own.

“It takes only a couple of waves of the Supreme Wand to produce the desired result. Poof!,” he wrote, joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Scalia said Young “has not established that UPS’s accommodations policy discriminates against pregnant women relative to others of similar ability or inability” and thus “she has not shown a violation of the Act’s same treatment requirement.”

The case is Young v. United Parcel Service.

brigid.schulte@washpost.com