On April 6, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States answered the question as to whether 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 imposes liability only when age is a “but-for cause” of the personnel action at issue. Babb v. Wilkie, 106 L. Ed. 2d 432, 438 (2020). 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a), in essence, provides that individuals aged 40 and older “shall not be subjected to personnel actions based on age discrimination,” with a few exceptions. In Babb, the plaintiff, who was born in 1960, is a clinical pharmacist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida. Id. at 439. The plaintiff brought a suit in 2014 against the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), alleging she had been subjected to age discrimination. Id. There were three personnel actions made by the VA that the plaintiff centers around her claim. The VA took away her “advanced scope” designation, which had made her eligible for promotion, was denied training opportunities and passed over for positions in the hospital’s anticoagulation clinic, and lastly, was placed in a new position but her holiday pay was decreased. Id. The plaintiff alleged that throughout this time period supervisors made several “age-related comments” to her as well. Id.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case due to the Circuit split over the interpretation of § 633a(a). The Court’s analysis starts off with looking at the plain meaning of the provision, which leads to the conclusion that “age need not be a but-for cause of an employment decision in order for there to be a violation.” Id. at 440. To support the Court’s conclusion, the language of “free from” found within the provision is examined closely, and the Court concludes that the language coupled with “any” means there cannot be any discrimination whatsoever based on age. Id. at 440-441. Reading the rest of the provision together, the Court determines that “age must be a but-for cause of discrimination, but it does not necessarily have to be a but-for cause of a personnel action itself.” Id. at 441. As a result, the Court concludes that the statute “does not require proof that an employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account.” Id.
The Government attempts to make an argument that compares the text of 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a) with other statutes interpreted in prior cases, one of which is the private-sector provision of the ADEA. 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). This provision makes “it unlawful for an employer . . . to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.” Id. The Court discusses the critical difference between § 623(a)(1) and § 633a(a), which is § 633a(a) “prohibits any age discrimination in the ‘making’ of a personnel decision, not just with the respect to end results.” Babb at 444. After noting this difference between the two provisions, the Court recognizes that federal employers are held to a stricter standard. However, the Court then addresses how Congress could have added the federal government to the definition of “employer” in the ADEA’s private sector provision but chose not to. Id. at 445.