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Supreme Court Holds Federal Employers to a Stricter Standard for Age Discrimination Claims Than Private Employers

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.

Lastly, the Court discusses potential remedies for a plaintiff when § 633a(a) has been violated. The Court concludes that “plaintiffs who demonstrate only that they were subjected to unequal consideration cannot obtain reinstatement, backpay, compensatory damages, or other forms of relief related to the end result of an employment decision.” Id. at 446. The only way plaintiffs can obtain this type of relief is by showing that age discrimination was the but-for cause of the employment outcome. However, plaintiffs can seek injunctive relief if they can still prove that “age was a but-for cause of differential treatment in an employment decision but not a but-for cause of the decision itself.” Id.

Therefore, there are a few main takeaways from this case. First, federal employers are held to a stricter and higher standard than private employers and state/local governments when it comes to discriminating against employees. For federal employers, age only has to be one of the employer’s reasons behind an adverse employment action to constitute discrimination, whereas with private employers and state/local governments it is only unlawful if discrimination is the “but-for” cause. The Babb case also clarifies that relief for plaintiffs varies depending on whether age discrimination was a but-for cause of the challenged employment decision. If age discrimination was only a part of the employment decision, relief is still available in a lesser capacity.

Erin Borissov is a partner in the law firm of Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse with offices in Indianapolis and Lebanon, Indiana. She advises utilities and business clients in the areas of utility regulatory law, electric cooperative law, easement and right-of-way law, commercial transactions, corporate governance, and corporate compliance.

The statements contained herein are matters of opinion and general information only and are not to be considered legal advice and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact an attorney.

 

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