Posts Tagged ‘Federal Courts’
Thursday, April 29th, 2010
Court Elaborates On Types Of Evidence For Proof Of Discrimination
The recent case of Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight is hands down one of the best decisions I have come across in a long time.
It addresses gender discrimination, sex stereotyping, and a corporate culture of discrimination in a way few cases have. It’s simply a great case for employees – particularly for victims of sex discrimination.
What Happened In The Case
Merritt worked as a line haul truck drive for Old Dominion, a nationwide trucking company. As a line haul driver, Merritt made lengthy cross-country trips. She performed her duties without incident or complaint. At some point, Merritt became interested in becoming a pickup and delivery driver so she could work more regular hours and spend nights and weekends at home.
To prove that she could do the job, she filled in numerous times as a pickup and delivery driver, and once again performed the duties without incident or complaint.
When a permanent pickup and delivery position became available at Old Dominion’s Lynchburg Virginia terminal, Merritt talked to Bobby Howard, the terminal manager about it. Howard told her that he lacked the authority to fill the position and proceeded to hire a less experienced man for the job.
The following year another permanent pickup and delivery position became available in Lynchburg and Merritt again expressed an interest in the position to Howard. Once again, Merritt was passed over in favor of a less experienced male.
When Merritt asked why she was not hired, Howard told her that :
- it was decided and they could not let a woman have that position.
- the company did not really have women drivers in the city (as pick up and deliver drivers)
On another occasion he told her:
- the Regional VP was worried about hiring a female pickup and deliver driver because women were more injury prone and he was aftaid a female would get hurt
- the VP didn’t think a girl should have that position
Finally, a year later, Old Dominion hired Merritt to fill a permanent Pickup and Delivery position in Lynchburg. Merritt was placed on a ninety-day probationary and told she could lose her job if any performance problems arose. Male drivers were not subject to similar probationary terms.
For the next two years, Merritt performed her Pickup and Delivery duties without a problem. Unfortunately, she then suffered an ankle injury at work which was diagnosed as plantar fascititis with a superimposed strain. She was put on light duty work by her doctor at first, but a couple of months later, he gave her a clean bill of health.
When she attempted to return to her regular duties, Brian Stoddard, Vice President of Safety and Personnel, required Merritt to take a physical ability test (“PAT”), a full-body test divided into six components that evaluates the test taker’s general strength, agility, and cardiovascular endurance. The test was graded on a pass/fail basis. The PAT was created for Old Dominion to be used in the hiring process and had been used to evaluate potential hires, but only on a variable basis.
Merritt struggled with several segments of the test and received a failing grade. According to Merritt, the tasks she had problems with had nothing to do with her ankle. In one portion of the test, for example, Merritt was unable to place a box of weight on an overhead shelf simply because she was too short.
After receiving the results of Merritt’s PAT, Stoddard terminated Merritt’s employment. Merritt filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC and then filed a lawsuit in federal court in Western District of Virginia claiming that Old Dominion terminated her because of her gender in violation of Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The district court granted judgment against Merritt because it found that Old Dominion produced a legitimate reason for firing Merritt (she failed the PAT) and because she had not produced any evidence that Stoddard (the decision maker) harbored any “discriminatory animus” towards Merritt. Merritt appealed.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses
Title VII makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual on the basis of sex. The most prevalent method of establishing discrimination is under the burden-shifting framework set forth in the Supreme Court case of McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green which goes like this:
- The plaintiff makes out a prima facie case of discrimination
- The burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory justification for its allegedly discriminatory action
- If the employer carries this burden, the plaintiff then has an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the neutral reason offered by the employer was not a true reason but a pretext for discrimination.
Ultimately, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that he or she was a victim of intentional discrimination.
In this case, Old Dominion put forth its legitimate non discriminatory justification for discharging Merritt – her failure to pass the PAT. That proved, according to Old Dominion, that Merritt did not have the “requisite physical strength to safely perform the job duties.” Merritt insisted that this rationale was a pretext for discrimination.
The Court of Appeals agreed with Merritt and found that the “record as a whole supports Merritt’s claim that a jury could find that discrimination on the basis of gender was afoot.”
According to the Court, Merritt produced plenty of evidence that Old Dominion’s explanation for her discharge was “unworthy of credence.” For example, Merritt’s doctor stated that there was nothing about Merritt’s medical condition which would have prevented her from performing her job duties as a Pickup and Delivery driver. As the Court pointed out:
Old Dominion terminated a good employee who, pre-injury, performed her job ably and without complaint and who, post-injury was both willing and able to report to this same job for work. These facts, if believed, would allow a jury to think Old Dominion was simply looking for a reason to get rid of Merritt.
In addition, the Court found that Merritt produced evidence of discriminatory intent. For one:
- Injured male employees did not have to take the PAT test
- Merritt produced evidence that the policy requiring all injured employees to take the PAT test did not exist
As the Court stated:
While a neutral policy serving Old Dominion’s legitimate business interests in public and employee safety could certainly be put in place, a trier of fact could reasonably find that Old Dominion’s selective application and ever-changing rationales for the PAT were designed to conceal intent to reserve the plum Pickup and Delivery positions for male drivers.
In addition, the district court ignored evidence of the corporate culture of discrimination produced by Merritt. The Court stated:
It is not unfair to observe that the corporate culture evinced a very specific yet pervasive aversion to the idea of a female Pickup and Delivery Drivers. Old Dominion employees, of all ranks, seemed to share a view that women were unfit for that position. …..
While the views of others are no proof of the views of Stoddard, at some point the corporate environment in which he worked places Stoddard’s own selective use of the PAT in Merritt’s case in a less neutral context.
In Lattieri v. Equant, ….[w]e deemed the plaintiff’s ‘powerful evidence showing a discriminatory attitude at her company of employment toward female managers’ sufficient to ‘allow a trier of fact to conclude that these discriminatory attitudes led to plaintiff’s ultimate termination.’ Likewise here.
The sum, the Court said:
Old Dominion fired an employee who was, according to the district court, able to do her job without assistance and in a satisfactory manner’ due to a treatable ankle injury, while hiding behind the results of a selectively administered physical fitness test that test that did not even purport to test the injury, and while dubiously claiming that its decision was compelled by a late-blooming policy, all in the context of, to put it mildly, a sexually stereotype work environment.
In this case, it not any single piece of evidence but rather the evidence taken in its entirety that leads us to believe Merritt deserves a trial….
Based on all of the foregoing reasons, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Old Dominion and remand for trial on Merritt’s Title VII claim.
This case helps women in circumstances similar to Merritt’s – firefighters, police officers, constructions workers, etc. — those in male dominated physical professions who still face widespread discrimination because they are simply not wanted.
Just this past fall, I counseled a female firefighter who was repeatedly seeking a promotion, and forced to take numerous tests that were not required of her male counterparts. It’s not an unusual scenario though this type of discrimination is precisely what Title VII is aimed to prevent. The Merritt case, no doubt, should help women fight for equality in the workplace.
In a broad sense, this case hits so many of the issues that come up in discrimination cases all of the time – “stray remarks,” “post- hoc justifications,” “shifting explanations,” the parsing of evidence by district court judges – to name a few, and frames them in a way that will be extremely helpful to employees and their lawyers in discrimination litigation in the future.
This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on April 28, 2010. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.
Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
Direct Evidence Of Age Discrimination Gets Plaintiff Jury Trial: Court Wrongfully Applied Mixed Motive Standard To Bounce The Case
It’s hard to believe that this age discrimination victim got thrown out of court and had to go to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals for a reversal but here’s what happened in the recently decided case of Mora v. Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Facts Of The Case
Sixty-two year old Josephine Mora worked for Jackson Memorial Hospital (“Hospital”) as a fundraiser. She initially worked for someone named Chea who recommended to the Hospital’s chief executive, Rodriguez, that she be fired. The reasons for the recommendation are not set out in the opinion.
Rodriguez first agreed, but then decided to give Mora a different position in his own office “where he could observe her more closely.” Mora worked with Rodriguez for a month. Rodriguez claimed during that time Mora was responsible for several errors and displayed a lack of professionalism.
At the end of the month, Rodriguez fired Mora. When he did so, according to Mora, Rodriguez called her into his office and said:
I need someone younger I can pay less … I need Elena [Quevedo, a 25 year old employee]
In addition, one employee heard Rodriguez tell Mora:
You are very old and inept. What you should be doing is taking care of old people. They really need you. I need somebody younger that I can pay less and I can control.
Another employee heard Rodriguez say “she’s too old to be working here anyway” in reference to Mora.
In the course of Mora’s lawsuit filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, (“ADEA”) Rodriguez denied making these discriminatory remarks. In addition, the Hospital argued that even if it did discriminate against Mora, she would have been fired anyway because of poor performance.
The district court agreed with the defendant, concluded that the Hospital had met its burden under the “same decision” affirmative defense, and granted judgment in favor of the Hospital. Mora appealed.
The Eleventh Circuit Reverses
Mixed Motive Analysis Wrongfully Applied
Part of the reason why the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision was because it found that the district court wrongfully applied a Title VII mixed motive analysis to an ADEA case.
The discussion involves a lot of complicated and tortured law, but here’s the simplest I can make it.
In the landmark Supreme Court case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decided in 1989, the evidence showed that the partners at Price Waterhouse made sexist remarks and engaged in gender stereotyping when they denied Ann Hopkins partnership in the firm. In other words, there was direct evidence of discrimination.
In its holding the Supreme Court set out a new standard which could be applied to cases with direct evidence of discrimination. In sum, when a plaintiff shows that race or sex discrimination was a motivating or substantial factor in an employment decision, the burden of persuasion shifts to the employer to prove that it would have made the same decision anyway (in the absence of the discriminatory motive.)
Since the Price Waterhouse decision, this kind of discrimination case is often referred to as a “mixed motive case” with a “same decision defense.”
In Moro’s case, the district court applied the Price Waterhouse mixed motive analysis and ruled that the Hospital proved its “same decision” defense. It concluded that Mora ‘s termination was inevitable given the number and severity of her workplace problems and that no reasonable jury could find otherwise. And so she lost as a matter of law.
The problem with the district court’s ruling — according to the 11th Circuit — is that the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross v. FBIS Financial Services (2009) held that the Price Waterhouse mixed motive burden shifting analysis only applied to discrimination claims brought under Title VII and did not apply to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. ( I wrote about the awful Gross case here and here)
Consequently, since the mixed motive burden shifting analysis was wrongly applied, the defense was not entitled to its same decision defense, and the district court’s reliance on that defense in finding against the plaintiff was reversible error.
The Jury Should Decide Whether Mora Was Fired Because Of Her Age
After the 11th Circuit explained why the district court’s analysis was wrong, it went on to explain what the correct analysis is – and unlike the above discussion, it’s all very straightforward from there.
A plaintiff in an ADEA case may prove illegal age discrimination with either direct or circumstantial evidence. Moro testified that she was fired because of her age, and two co-employees substantiated her. The Hospital denied that the comments were made which meant that material facts were in dispute and the case properly belonged in front of a jury.
As the Court put it:
The resolution of this case depends on whose account of the pertinent conversations a jury would credit. …..
A reasonable juror could find that Rodriguez’s statements should be taken at face value and that he fired Plaintiff because of her age. For us to conclude otherwise would be to deny Plaintiff the benefit of resolving all reasonable inferences in her favor as the nonmoving party.
Given the disputed question of material fact, Defendant was unentitled to a summary judgment.
It’s awfully common for people to be let go because they are considered by some to be too old and too expensive. I can’t count the number of times I have represented people who were fired for just those reasons.
In this case, Josephine Mora was told, “you’re too old. I need to find someone younger and cheaper.” If it’s not a case of age discrimination, I don’t know what is.
It’s both astounding and disheartening that forty three years after the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, a court faced with such strong evidence of age discrimination could throw the plaintiff out, grant judgment in favor of the employer, and deprive the employee of her right to a jury trial
It’s a good thing the Eleventh Circuit fixed the mistake and published this opinion, because if this woman can’t get her age discrimination case in front of a jury, I have a hard time figuring out who can.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights attorneys in the United States, Ellen Simon has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. A sought-after legal analyst and expert, she discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post www.employeerightspost.com/ has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. Learn more about Ellen Simon at www.ellensimon.net/.
Wednesday, September 30th, 2009
Age Discrimination Plaintiff Gets Great Decision From Court of Appeals
It looks like a typical age discrimination scenario. A supervisor makes hostile remarks about older employees and expresses a preference for younger ones. An older employee with an excellent record gets fired for trumped-up reasons and a younger employee is hired to replace her.
What seems like an obvious case of age discrimination was not so obvious to the Federal District Court in the Western District of Missouri when it threw out the case of Baker v. Silver Oak Senior Living Mgt. Co. on summary judgment.
Fortunately, the Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed this month in an important opinion about the proper interpretation of evidence in an age discrimination case.
What Happened In The Case
Kathy Baker worked as the director of assisted living at a center operated by Silver Oak since 2003. Her 2004 review was excellent in every category.
A few months later, Carolyn Thomas was hired as Baker’s new supervisor. After taking over, Thomas told Baker that:
- Silver Oak needed people that were “young and vivacious, not slow and old”
- Baker “needed to get rid of the dead wood”
- Employees who had been fired were “slow and old”
She also told Baker that:
- She dressed like an old lady
- Everyone had to “keep up with” two supervisors who were in their thirties
The CEO, Eric Lindsey, made similar remarks at meetings attended by Baker.
Thomas also admitted that she teased Baker about walking slowly and having poor hearing. She also repeatedly asked Baker to fire and discipline older employees.
When Baker told Thomas that “you can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old,” Thomas responded that:
- “firing older employees would allow Silver Oak to hire younger employees for less money’”
- “younger employees would be better workers, have more energy, be more enthusiastic, and stimulate the residents”
After refusing Thomas’ demands to get rid of the older employees, Baker was disciplined and placed on indefinite probation.
The reason given was that Baker allegedly failed to get proper approval before admitting a special-needs resident and dismissed an employee without having an administrator present.
Baker claimed that that these allegations were false.
Following those events, Thomas gave Baker a negative performance evaluation and asked Baker whether she was going to quit. She said no.
A couple of months later, Baker went on an approved medical leave. She was called in at some point during her leave, told that she had been temporarily replaced and that she was being transferred to another city.
She was again asked if she wanted to quit and again she said no.
Shortly after that she was fired. The reason given was that she did not call in each day during her medical leave. Baker was 53 years old at the time.
Angela Thomas, age 30, temporarily took over Baker’s duties until a new director — 22 year old Starr McGinnes – was hired to replace Baker a couple of months later.
Baker filed a lawsuit claiming age discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
While it may seem hard to believe in the face of this record, the federal district court threw out the case and granted judgment in favor of Silver Oak on all claims stating that Baker:
- failed to present any direct evidence that age was a motivating factor in her termination (a misinterpretation of the Gross decision)
- offered no evidence that Silver Oak’s stated reasons for firing her were a pretext for age discrimination
- did not engage in any protected activity which would support a retaliation claim
The Court Of Appeals Reverses
Baker appealed the incomprehensible ruling of the district court. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on all counts and gave Baker her day in court.
Here’s the gist of what the Court had to say.
Evidence of Age Bias
Statements by Lindsey (CEO) and Thomas (supervisor) — who participated in the decision to fire Baker — were evidence of a preference for younger workers over those protected by the ADEA.
As stated by the Court:
Lindsey’s statement to his management team that Silver Oak was ‘missing the boat by not hiring younger, vibrant people,’ and that employees ‘should start looking over applications better and try to consider hiring younger people’ is evidence that a reasonable jury could take to reflect a discriminatory attitude by one who participated in Baker’s termination.
Other evidence that the Court considered to support Baker’s age discrimination claim included:
- Thomas’ criticism of Baker for dressing like an old lady
- Thomas’ comments about keeping up with younger employees
- Baker’s refusal of Thomas’ directions to discipline older workers
Evidence of Pretext
The Court also found that Baker presented plenty evidence of pretext — meaning that the reasons given for the discharge were not believable. Evidence of pretext can give rise to an inference of age discrimination and can be proved circumstantially. “Direct evidence” is not essential.
In this case, that evidence of pretext included:
- Baker’s explanation for why the probation was not warranted
- Silver Oaks’ failure to follow its normal progressive discipline policy
- Shifting explanations for why Baker was terminated:
As the Court stated:
Not every supplement to an employer’s initial statement of the reasons gives rise to an inference of pretext, but substantial variations raise suspicion.
[The evidence of pretext] is combined with evidence from which a jury could find that the management of Silver Oak harbored a discriminatory attitude toward older employees and desired to displace them in favor of a younger workforce.
Viewing all of the evidence together, we conclude that Baker has presented a submissible case of age discrimination under the ADEA.
Retaliation Claim Survives
Baker claimed that she was retaliated against because she opposed Silver Oak’s conduct which she believed to be unlawful age discrimination.
Baker filed an affidavit in which she stated that she repeatedly told Thomas:
- That terminating older employees was wrong
- You can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old
It’s a technical argument but in sum, the district court ignored the evidence because it was presented in an affidavit and not in Baker’s deposition or other court pleadings.
The Eighth Circuit held that the district court made an error in striking Baker’s affidavit and allowed Baker’s retaliation claim to proceed.
What’s Important About This Case
Everything but here’s the big three:
1.The case gives excellent illustrations about the kind of evidence from which a jury may infer age discrimination — including hostility towards older workers and/or a preference for younger ones.
2. On the subject of pretext the Court makes note of a failure to follow normal progressive discipline policies, and shifting explanations for the discharge.
This kind of evidence is quite common in discrimination cases, and it’s very helpful for employees to have a Circuit Court of Appeals affirm it as proof of pretext.
3. While it’s a technical point, mostly for the lawyers, it’s extremely helpful that the lower court was reversed because it struck Baker’s affidavit.
Clients don’t always remember everything important about their case when interrogated in a lengthy deposition. Many times salient points are not ever asked.
Consequently, adding important evidence to the record by way of a sworn affidavit is often necessary to fill in the evidentiary gaps. The Eighth Circuit recognized this necessary practice and affirmed its propriety.
It’s really good news for plaintiffs in discrimination cases and their lawyers.
All in all, it’s just a great case for employees who are unfortunate victims of age discrimination. It should also be instructive to employers as to what illegal age discrimination can look like in front of a jury.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She has been listed in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. Ellen has been listed as one of The Best Lawyers in America for her landmark work representing individuals in precedent-setting cases. She also received regional and national attention for winning a record $30.7 million verdict in an age-discrimination case; the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Ellen has served as an adjunct professor of employment law and is an experienced and popular orator. Ellen is Past-Chair of the Employment Rights Section of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and is honored to be a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. In additional to work as a legal analyst, she currently acts as co-counsel on individual employment cases, is available as an expert witness on employment matters and offers consulting services on sound employment practices, discrimination awareness and prevention, complaint investigation and resolution, and litigation management. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post, and her website is www.ellensimon.net. Ellen has two children and lives with her husband in Sedona, Arizona.
This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on September 28, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.
Friday, June 26th, 2009
Did the Supreme Court Discriminate Against Victims of Age Discrimination?
The only good thing to say about the new age discrimination case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. is that it will be gone in a flash.
There are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin, and because I really do believe that it will be legislatively overruled in the very near future, I don’t want to beat it to death.
Let me say this. For those immersed in discrimination law, the opinion and the dissenting opinions are a must read.
For the rest of the country, I believe that the decision will have little impact and there are several reasons why that’s so.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether a plaintiff must present direct evidence of age discrimination in order to obtain a mixed motive instruction in a suit brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
It’s a pretty dry academic issue with little to no practical effect in the real world of age discrimination litigation.
For those interested in the background of the issues presented in the case, you can take a look at the article I wrote on the case when it was argued in March.
What The Court Did In The Gross Case
Instead of deciding the issue before it, the Court did two really strange things in this case:
- It decided an entirely different issue than the question accepted for review — one that was not properly presented or briefed.
- The issue it chose to rule on manifested a complete disregard for Supreme Court precedent and Congressional intent.
Here’s an attempt at an explanation.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that a person can’t be discriminated against in his/her employment “because of ” his/her race, color, sex, religion or national origin.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) was passed in 1967. Like Title VII, the ADEA prohibits discrimination in employment “because of ” age.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the “because of” language and so has Congress.
The issue first came up for interpretation before the Supreme Court in the Price Waterhouse case in 1989. In that case, Justice Kennedy pushed for a “but for” standard which meant that the plaintiff in a Title VII case would have to prove that “but for” his race (sex, national origin, religion, etc.) he would not have been terminated (demoted, transferred, etc.).
The Price Waterhouse decision rejected the “but for” standard and held that the plaintiff in a Title VII employment discrimination case bears the burden of proving that membership in the protected class was a “motivating factor in the employment decision” in order to prove that he or she was discriminated against because of it.
Congress ratified the “motivating factor” interpretation when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.The precise language of the statute is as follows:
An unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.
What happened in the Gross case last week is that the majority resurrected the“but for” standard and held that:
To establish a disparate treatment claim under the plain language of the ADEA, the plaintiff must prove that age was the “but-for”cause of the employer’s adverse decision.
It’s important to point out that Title VII and the ADEA have previously been interpreted uniformly by courts throughout this country including the Supreme Court.
After all discrimination is discrimination, and it make no sense to use different methods, burdens, or standards of proof for age discrimination cases than sex or race discrimination cases, and it’s not been done before.
Why The Decision Makes No Sense
For all of the reasons why the majority opinion written by Justice Thomas (joined by guess who) is in my opinion, just plainly wrong (there are other words I would love to use but I am constrained to be respectful) I recommend that you take a look at Justice Stevens scathing dissent. Here’s a glimmer:
The Court is unconcerned that the question it chooses to answer has not been briefed by the parties or interested amici curiae. It’s failure to consider the views of the United States, which represents the agency charged with administering the ADEA, is especially irresponsible.
Unfortunately, the majority’s inattention to prudential Court practices is matched by its utter disregard our our precedent and the Congress’ intent.
Not only did the Court reject the but-for standard in [Price Waterhouse], but so too did Congress when it amended Title VII in 1991. Given this unambiguous history, it is particularly inappropriate for the Court, on its own initiative, to adopt an interpretation of the causation requirement in the ADEA that differs from the established reading of Title VII.
The Court’s endorsement of a different construction of the same critical language in the ADEA and Title VII is both unwise and inconsistent with settled law.
I disagree not only with the Court’s interpretation of the statute, but also with its decision to engage in unnecessary lawmaking.
(Justice Souter agreed with Justice Stevens and also wrote a separate dissent. He raised additional problems with the “but for” language — not the least of which is that it’s a tort concept of causation that has no place in the actual context of a discrimination case and its proof.)
The talk has already started about a Congressional bill which will overturn the decision. As reported in the Washington Times on Friday:
Democratic lawmakers seized on Justice Stevens’ dissent as constitutional lawyers predicted Congress would make a law to lower the courts new bar for age discrimination cases.
‘It is even more troubling that these five justices decided to go further than the question presented to the court,’ said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
“This overreaching by a narrow majority of the court will have a detrimental effect on all Americans and their families. In these difficult economic times, American workers need to be protected from discrimination.”
Mr. Leahy said Thursday’s decision reminded him of the court’s “wrong-headed ruling in Ledbetter,” a reference to Lily Ledbetter, whose pursuit of equal pay to her male counterparts at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was thrown out in 2007 because she filed the lawsuit after the expiry of a 180-day statute of limitations.
What’s the Practical Effect of the Decision?
- As far as the loss of getting a mixed motive instruction in an age discrimination case, most plaintiff’s lawyers don’t care. It’s too confusing to the jury. So until it’s fixed legislatively, it really doesn’t matter.
- Most experienced employment lawyers know that the “but for” language will have little effect on a jury.
- Age discrimination plaintiffs will still have the opportunity, through the use of direct and circumstantial evidence, to prove that they were discriminated against because of their age — and this decision does not change that fact.
While some interpret the decision to require proof that age was the sole reason for the discharge, I don’t think that’s clear at all from the language of the decision.
The majority opinion relies on a previous Supreme Court case, Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggens, and the language in it that says that “an age discrimination plaintiff can win if it proves that the discrimination played a (not the) role in the employer’s decision making process and had a (not the) determinative influence on the outcome.”
Plaintiffs in age discrimination cases can and will rely on that language to rebut the contention that a higher bar has been set. Justice Thomas also writes in a footnote that the decision sets no “heightened evidentiary requirement for ADEA plaintiffs ” — so why not take him at his word.
In sum, I think it’s all academic and that the opinion will have little effect on the litigation or trial of age discrimination cases in the future. It will, however, make for a whole pile of briefing on what will shortly become a moot point.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that Congress has certainly never said that it should be harder to prove age discrimination than any other kind of prohibited discrimination and never intended that result.
It’s fundamentally unsound and intellectually dishonest to interpret the same words differently because one discrimination statute refers to race and sex and another refers to age. What’s more, it’s just totally confusing.
That’s why the Gross decision will, in my opinion, be gone in a flash.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post. Her website is www.ellensimon.net.
This article originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on June 22, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.
Images: www.roadtransport.com and farm1.static.flickr.com