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Recent Supreme Court Decision Touted as Victory for Employers

A recent United States Supreme Court decision makes it more difficult for employees to prove age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and is being touted as a victory for employers. In Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. ___ (2009), the Court ruled that an employee who brings a disparate treatment claim under the ADEA must prove that age was the reason for the adverse employment action. It is not sufficient for the employee to prove that age was just one motivating factor in the employment action (which is referred to as a "mixed motive").

In this case, an employee brought an ADEA claim against his employer after he was reassigned to a different position. The employee was 54 at the time of the reassignment and his previous duties were reassigned to a younger female employee in a newly created position. The employee's compensation did not change, but he considered the reassignment to be a demotion. The employer claimed the reassignment was due to corporate restructuring and better fit the employee's skill set. A jury ultimately ruled in favor of the employee, finding that age was a motivating factor in the employer's decision. The employer appealed the decision based upon the instructions given to the jury that enabled the jury to rule in favor of the employee if it found the employer had a "mixed motive" for the reassignment. These instructions were eventually appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the employer that a "mixed motive" instruction was improper in an ADEA claim. The Court's opinion rested heavily on the language of the ADEA.

This decision distinguishes ADEA claims from federal discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employer discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In Title VII cases, the employee must only prove that discrimination was one of the reasons for the adverse employment action. Thus, the employer could have both legitimate and illegitimate reasons for the disparate treatment – a "mixed motive." In contrast, the Supreme Court's decision in Gross eliminates a "mixed motive" analysis from ADEA claims and requires employees to prove that age was the reason for the action.

While the recent Supreme Court decision is currently being touted as a victory for employers, this victory could be short-lived. Congress could easily amend the ADEA to include "mixed motive" claims. Given the inclusion of "mixed motive" claims in Title VII discrimination claims, such an amendment is likely in the future. If you have any questions about the ADEA or discrimination claims in general, please contact the labor and employment attorneys at Bingham McHale for more information.

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