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U.S. Supreme Court Strengthens Employers’ Hand Against Age Discrimination Claims

The American workforce is growing older and the economy is struggling. These two factors indicate that, as companies lay off workers to cope with a slow economy, older workers who lose their jobs may increasingly take their former employers to court for alleged age discrimination. However, a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court may make it harder for workers to win those lawsuits.

Jack Gross, a 54 year-old claims administration director for a financial services firm, was reassigned in 2003 to the position of claims project coordinator; some of his duties were transferred to a person in her forties whom he formerly supervised. Because he lost some of his duties, he considered the move a demotion and sued his employer a year later, claiming a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. At trial, the judge instructed the jury that it must find in Gross’s favor if he proved that he had been demoted and that age played a part in the employer’s decision. The jury did return a verdict in his favor and awarded him lost wages. An appeals court reversed the ruling, saying that the judge’s instructions were incorrect, and Gross appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 18, 2009, a divided court ruled against Gross. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that a person suing for a violation of the ADEA must prove that the employer would not have taken the action if not for the person’s advanced age. The employer does not have the burden of proving that it would have taken the action regardless of the employee’s age, even when the employee has evidence that age was one factor in the decision. He also wrote that the ADEA requires the employee to show that age was the primary reason for a demotion, not just one of multiple reasons. He noted that Congress had the opportunity to prohibit considering age among other factors and neglected to do so.

Justice John Paul Stevens denounced the majority’s interpretation of the ADEA as “an unabashed display of judicial lawmaking.” Noting that the court had interpreted other anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discriminatory actions based partly on a protected characteristic, he said it was inconsistent and arbitrary for the court to apply a different standard to ADEA violations. He pointed to a previous decision where the court held that an action was illegal if discrimination against a protected characteristic was “a motivating factor” in the decision. Justice Stephen Breyer added that to apply the majority’s standard “is to engage in a hypothetical inquiry about what would have happened if the employer’s thoughts and other circumstances had been different.” The answer, he wrote, will often be far from obvious.

This decision should be good news for employers and their insurance companies. Employment Practices Liability Insurance policies normally cover employment terminations, demotions, decisions not to hire or promote, and denials of employment benefits based on factors such as age, sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, and others. This decision should result in fewer successful lawsuits against employers for alleged age discrimination, with a corresponding drop in payments under EPLI policies for these actions. While insurance companies will still incur the cost of legal defense, they are less likely to pay for judgments against employers.

Because the court based its reasoning on Congress’s failure to clearly prohibit actions based even in part on age, members of Congress may seek to change the law. Employers should continue to avoid any actions that older workers could perceive as unfairly discriminatory. If that proves to be unworkable, they should work with their attorneys and insurance agents to ensure that their practices are legal and their insurance coverages adequate.