Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Will Congress Restore Equal Opportunity for Older Workers?

May 12th, 2010 | Simon Lazarus

Image: LazarusOn May 5 and 6, House and Senate committees held back-to-back hearings on legislation to override a June 2009 Supreme Court decision that stripped older workers of vital protections against bias on which they had relied for over 40 years. In this ruling, which Justice Stevens in dissent characterized as “unabashed judicial law-making,” “irresponsible,” and in “utter disregard” of the Court’s own precedents and “Congressional intent,” a narrow 5-4 majority so weakened the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), that employers are left with little incentive to comply. The case, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, illustrates the accuracy of President Obama’s recent observation that we “are now seeing a conservative jurisprudence” that is both “activist” and bent on gutting laws that, like the ADEA, were enacted to protect ordinary people.

The case arose out of circumstances all too familiar to older workers at all levels in our economy, especially in the hard times from which much of the nation has barely begun to recover. In 2003, Jack Gross, aged 54 and a 32-year employee of FBL Financial, was demoted from his position as claims administration director, and transferred to a newly created position with drastically reduced responsibilities. Gross sued, and at trial introduced “evidence suggesting that his reassignment was based at least in part on his age” (as stated by Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority). Gross’ employer responded with the claim that the reassignment was part of a “corporate restructuring.” The jury found for Gross and awarded him $46,945 in lost compensation, after receiving the judge’s instructions that they must rule for the employee if he proved by a preponderance of the evidence that “age was a motivating factor” in his demotion. “However,” the judge instructed, the jury must rule for the employer if the employer proves by the preponderance of the evidence that the employer would have demoted Gross “regardless of his age.” This instruction tracked settled law. But the Supreme Court majority changed the law, and held that Gross and others in his situation needed to show that age was the “but for” cause of their adverse treatment, and that evidence that age was a motivating factor would not shift the burden of proof to the employer to prove that the adverse action would have occurred regardless of the employee’s age.

After the Supreme Court bounced him back to square one, Mr. Gross testified before Congress that the conservative Justices had “hijacked” his case to make an ideological point. His view cannot be dismissed as sour grapes. On the contrary, this 5-4 reversal of the jury verdict in Mr. Gross’ favor creates a veritable perfect storm for older workers. Numerous surveys show that the current financial crisis has forced older workers at all economic levels to shelve plans for retirement, and attempt to stay in, or re-enter the job market. Or hope to. When recession strikes, employers often target veteran employees in reductions in force, and disfavor older candidates for whatever new positions they may need to fill. Age discrimination claims submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spiked nearly 30 percent in June 2009 compared with the same month a year earlier.

For these claimants, the Supreme Court’s decision offers a Catch-22. The aptly named decision will largely nullify the ADEA and guarantees that a vast proportion of age bias complaints will fail, whatever their merit. As Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (who blogged for ACSblog here) observed in his committee’s March 6 hearing on the bill, in real-world workplaces, employers create paper trails purporting to justify adverse actions on legitimate business-related grounds. In such circumstances, it will rarely be possible to prove that age was the “but-for” cause (a standard some courts have interpreted to mean “exclusive”), rather than a “motivating” factor. Virtually any evidence of any other factors, whether business-related or not, suffices to throw a legitimate age discrimination victim out of court. Employee-side lawyers will know that, so they will rarely waste their time and resources to bring cases when age bias victims come to them for help. Business lawyers will also know that, and will counsel clients that they have nothing to fear if they pay lip-service to the ADEA but ignore it in practice.

As noted above, few cases confirm more clearly than Gross v. FBL President Obama’s observation that recent conservative judicial activism “ignores the will of Congress” and “democratic processes.” “Not only,” Justice Stevens wrote in his impassioned dissent, did the Court’s own precedents reject the “but-for” standard, but “so did Congress when it amended Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) in 1991.” Moreover, the majority’s “far-reaching” new rule answered a question completely different from the one the parties had raised with the Court or the courts below and which the Court “granted certiorari to decide.”

When issued a bit less than a year ago, the Gross decision provoked indignant opposition on Capitol Hill, and on October 6, 2009, Senators Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Representative George Miller, simultaneously introduced identical corrective bills, entitled the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act. The fact that legislative hearings have now occurred on both sides of the Capitol indicates that Congress may well restore equal opportunity guarantees for older workers – just as it did in February 2009, when it overturned the infamous 2007 5-4 Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision that undermined equal pay opportunity safeguards in Title VII. Only through such prompt action can Congress prevent the further metastasizing of this threat to the economic security of older Americans, and all Americans.

*This post originally appeared in American Constitution Society on May 7, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors:

Simon Lazarus is Public Policy Counsel for the National Senior Citizens Law Center, where he is responsible for the Washington DC advocacy effort of NSCLC’s Federal Rights Project. He writes frequently on the politics of judicial nominations, on Congressional authority to protect ordinary Americans’ basic needs, and on the ability of individuals to enforce rights under federal and state law.  His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, The American Prospect, Roll Call, and Huffington Post.  His DePaul Law Review article, “Federalism R.I.P.? Did the Roberts Hearings Junk the Rehnquist Court’s Federalism Revolution?,” expanded an issue brief he authored for the American Constitution Society.  His ACS issue brief, “Mandatory Health Insurance: Is it Constitutional?,” has been widely referenced in the current debate.  His Atlantic article, “The Most Dangerous Branch?”, was republished in two anthologies, The Best American Political Writing 2003, Royce Flippin, ed., and Principles and Practice of American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, 2d ed., Samuel Kernell and Steven S. Smith, eds. (CQ Press 2003).   Si has served as Associate Director of President Jimmy Carter’s White House Domestic Policy Staff (1977-81), as a partner in Powell, Goldstein, Frazer, and Murphy LLP (1981-2002), and as Senior Counsel to Sidley Austin LLP (2002-2006). A Trustee of the Center for Law and Social Policy, he graduated from Yale Law School, where he was Note & Comment Editor of the Yale Law Journal.

Sergio Eduardo Munoz is a staff attorney for the Federal Rights Project. Most recently, he was the Public Policy Director of a health reform organization where he coordinated advocacy for the amelioration of health difficulties facing adolescents of color and limited income. This position built upon Sergio’s work directing Latino outreach in the greater Denver area for federal Democratic candidates in the successful 2008 elections. He specialized in bringing first-time voters into the political process, preventing voter suppression, and laying the groundwork for a sustainable and diverse political majority. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School, he has completed legal fellowships at the ACLU of Michigan, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Pediatric Advocacy Initiative. Prior to starting law school, Sergio was a social worker for foster children with medical conditions and a civil rights and liberties investigator of police misconduct in New York City.

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