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.
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