Supreme Court Mandates Tougher ADEA Evidence Standard

June 18, 2009 ( - Employers won a major legal victory Thursday when a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled workers now have to prove their age was the primary factor in an employment decision.

On a 5 to 4 vote, the high court ruled that a plaintiff bringing a claim under the   Age Discrimination in Employment Act   (ADEA) must prove that “but for” the worker’s age, the employer would have made a different workplace decision.

Justices declared that employers will not now have to take on the burden of showing the employment decision would have been made regardless of how old the worker was, even when the plaintiff has already shown age was a motivating factor in a “mixed motives” case. The majority said in its opinion that this was the intent Congress showed when it made changes to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act without making those same changes to the ADEA.

A Dow Jones account of the ruling said the justices’ split vote fell along ideological lines with conservatives in the majority and the court’s liberal block registering an angry dissent.   “Our inquiry therefore must focus on the text of the ADEA to decide whether it authorizes a mixed-motives age discrimination claim,”   Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “It does not.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in the court’s dissent, accused the majority of engaging “in an unabashed display of judicial lawmaking” that he said overturns earlier employment discrimination precedent and disregards 1991 changes in federal civil rights laws, the Dow Jones account said.

Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told Dow Jones the opinion in Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc would help companies fend off against age bias claims. "Requiring claimants to show direct evidence that age played a substantial role in the challenged employment decision is the appropriate and fair standard," Harned told the newspaper.

The case involves a lawsuit brought against FBL Financial Group Inc. (FFG) by plaintiff Jack Gross, who, at age 54, was moved from a director to a coordinator position. Some of his prior responsibilities were assigned to a younger female employee that had previously reported to Gross, according to court documents.

Gross filed his ADEA suit in 2004. A federal jury awarded Gross $47,000, but a federal appellate court reversed the decision. Thursday's Supreme Court threw out the appellate ruling.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito joined the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter joined the dissent

The ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc. is . available  here .