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Supreme Court makes it harder for employees to win age-bias lawsuits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Hiring,Human Resources

In an important employer victory, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 18 that for employees to successfully bring Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) lawsuits, they must now show that age discrimination was the cause—not just one of several possible contributing factors—of their termination or other adverse job action. (Gross v. FBL Financial Service, No. 08-441)

This decidedly pro-employer ruling will set a higher bar for workers, making it more difficult for them to win age-discrimination suits in court  

“While this may sound like a ruling on a technical procedural issue, it’s more than that,” says a report from Fisher & Phillips employment law firm. “The court's decision is a victory for employers. Indeed, the decision makes clear that, in non-Title VII discrimination cases, the burden of proof at all times rests with the plaintiff. The employer is never charged with proving that an adverse employment action was legitimate. Rather, it is the plaintiff's burden to prove that the action was illegitimate.”

Here’s the background: In job-discrimination lawsuits, the burden of proof rests with the employee to prove he or she was a victim of discrimination. But about 20 years ago, the Supreme Court began to allow “mixed-motive” arguments from employees. In those cases, if employees were able to show that discrimination (race, sex, etc.) was a “motivating factor” in an adverse employment action (hiring, firing, demotion, etc.), the burden of proof shifted to the employer to prove that it would have taken the same action regardless of that person’s protected characteristic. Congress amended Title VII to authorize such “mixed motive” job-bias claims. Similar changes weren’t made to the ADEA.

For years, courts have had difficulty applying these rules in non-Title VII mix-motive cases. But in its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said that mix-motive claims are not allowed under the ADEA and other non-Title VII discrimination statutes.

The opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas said the ADEA’s language doesn’t authorize mixed-motive age-bias claims. Under the ADEA, “the plaintiff retains the burden of persuasion to establish that age was the ‘but-for' cause of the employer's adverse action."

Will Congress get involved? Some Democrats in Congress have already assailed the decision, saying it will unfairly limit employees’ ability to seek redress in court for legitimate age discrimination. Expect a push for legislation that would reverse this decision, as Congress did early in 2009 in the Ledbetter pay-bias case.

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