Supreme Court Issues Important Ruling for Employers in ADEA Case

Jun 19, 2009

Supreme Court Issues Important Ruling for Employers in ADEA Case

Alexandria, Va. - Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided the case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., No. 08-441, U.S. Supreme Court (June 18, 2009); a case brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that when an employee has produced evidence that age was one motivating factor in an adverse employment decision, the burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer to show that it would have taken the action without regard for age. Under this ruling, ADEA cases would be handled differently than Title VII discrimination cases in which the burden does shift to the employer upon a showing that the protected characteristic played a role in the decision. The Court’s opinion supports arguments made by SHRM in its amicus brief to the Court.

In this case, Gross, a 54-year old employee, claimed his job reassignment was actually a demotion that was motivated, at least in part, by his age in violation of the ADEA. While Gross showed that age was one factor, he was unable to show direct evidence that his age actually motivated the adverse employment decision. For this reason, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court improperly shifted the burden of persuasion to the employer.

SHRM, along with the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, filed an amicus brief when the case reached the Supreme Court arguing that the burden of persuasion should only shift to the employer when the employee shows direct evidence of discrimination. However, the Court did not decide the question of whether the employee must present direct evidence. Instead, the Court concluded that because the burden-shifting framework used in Title VII cases never applies to mixed motive ADEA cases, it was unnecessary to decide the question of type of evidence.

The number of cases filed that allege age discrimination have been steadily increasing in recent years. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross, future ADEA cases will be limited to those in which the employee can prove that age discrimination was the actual cause for the adverse employment action, not merely one factor.

To read SHRM’s amicus brief, please click here. To read the Supreme Court’s decision, please click here​.

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