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Posts Tagged ‘Gross v. FBL Financial Services’

Age Discrimination Gets Attention Of Congress

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Hearings Held On Federal Discrimination Bill To Overturn Gross Decision

Last week, both the House and Senate held hearings on the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) (H.R. 3721, S. 1756). The legislation would overturn the awful Gross v. FBL Financials Services, Inc. case decided by the Supreme Court last year. If passed,  the bill will apply retroactively to all cases pending on or after June 17, 2009, the date of the Gross decision.

Simply stated, the Gross decision holds age discrimination plaintiffs to a higher standard of proof than other victims of discrimination by requiring them to prove that their age was the “but for” cause of the employer’s adverse decision instead of  “a motivating factor.” I predicted, as did others, that Gross would get a Congressional fix and that’s exactly what POWADA does – and more.

For one, POWADA allows the plaintiff to win an age discrimination case by proving that:

(A) an impermissible factor under the Act (the discrimination statute) was a motivating factor for the practice complained of  — even if other factors also motivated the practice, or

(B) the practice complained of would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible factor.

The legislation also establishes that:

  • standards of proof for all federal laws forbidding discrimination and retaliation (including whistleblowing) are the same
  • the plaintiff can choose the method of proof for the case, including the McDonnell Douglas framework
  • employees can rely on any type or form of admissible circumstantial or direct evidence to prove their discrimination and retaliation cases

The Act explicitly states that the standard for proving unlawful disparate treatment under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and other anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws is no different than the standard of proof under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including amendments made by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

In other words, all plaintiffs in discrimination cases will be held to the same standards of proof and will be able to prove their discrimination cases in the same way. While this is most certainly what Congress intended in the first place, it will be very beneficial for all of us who litigate these cases — and our clients — to have these evidentiary matters settled once and for all.

image: www.conversantlife.com/files/imagecache/blog_wizard/files/blog_wizard/proof.png

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 9, 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.

Will Congress Restore Equal Opportunity for Older Workers?

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

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.

Congress Introduces Age Discrimination Bill To Fix Supreme Court's Gross Decision

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Age Discrimination Legislation Will Overturn Gross Decision

Last June, the Supreme Court issued the awful and controversial age discrimination opinion in the Gross v. FBL Financial Services case.

I wrote about the case at that time and predicted that it was just a matter of time until Congress fixed it with a bill that would overrule the decision and set the record straight on the fair standard of proof for age discrimination plaintiffs.

Last Tuesday, the Senate and House introduced legislation designed to do just that.

The bill — introduced as H.R. 3721 — and called the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimation Act, will put age discrimination plaintiffs back where they were before the Gross decision.

The bill will apply to all cases pending on or after June 17, 2009,  the day before the Gross decision.

Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the authors of the bill had this to say (as reported in the New York Times):

What our bill does is restore the intent of Congress, an intent that I believe the Supreme Court negligently ignored.

In Gross, the Court held that the Plaintiff, Jack Gross, was required to prove that age was the “but for” reason he was demoted from his job.

In other words, the plaintiff would have to prove that “but for” his age, he would not have been demoted (fired, hired, etc.).

Most interpret this as a new and more stringent requirement that age be the sole reason for the adverse employment action (though the case has conflicting language on that issue).

What’s fundamentally flawed about the Court’s interpretation of the federal age discrimination statute (ADEA) is that it’s not consistent with all  of the other comparable civil rights statutes.

Simply stated, it makes no sense for an age discrimination plaintiff to be treated differently, and more harshly, than a plaintiff in a race or gender discrimination case. The method of proof and standard of proof has been, and ought to be, the same.

In other discrimination cases a plaintiff must prove that the alleged discrimination was “a motivating factor,” not the sole reason, for the challenged adverse employment decision.

This bill establishes that age discrimination cases are to be interpreted by the same “motivating factor” standard of proof.

The bill also explicitly recognizes the difficulty of proving discrimination cases and makes clear that victims of any kind of prohibited discrimination can prove their cases with direct or circumstantial evidence.

According to Senator Tom Harkin, one of the co-sponsors of the bill — as reported in Workforce Management:

The Court invented a new standard that makes it prohibitively difficult for a victim to prove age discrimination

This extraordinarily high burden radically undermines older workers’ ability to hold employers accountable.

It’s no secret that workers over 55 have been hit hard by the recession. According to the EEOC, 25,000 age discrimination cases were filed last year, a 30%increase from 2000.

The last thing these folks need is a more difficult standard of proof when age discrimination is at play.

Fortunately, Congress has the final say on what its legislation means and how it should be interpreted. That’s why it gets to say that all discrimination plaintiffs should be treated consistently by the courts.

Let’s hope that this important Congressional fix gets passed soon.

image:blog.prospect.org images1.wikia.nocookie.net

This article originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on October 15, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. 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. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

New Supreme Court Age Discrimination Decision Will Be Gone in a Flash

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.

Case Background

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:

  1. It decided an entirely different issue than the question accepted for review — one that was not properly presented or briefed.
  2. 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 thebut forstandard 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.)

What’s Coming

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

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