Supreme Court Undermines Age Discrimination Plaintiffs
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas today leads the conservative wing of the Supreme Court in an unusual decision that rules that plaintiffs in age discrimination suits don’t get the same benefit of the doubt that every other discrimination plaintiff gets.
In concluding that a plaintiff claiming age discrimination must show not only that age was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, but the determinative motivating factor, the court is essentially requiring the employee to produce direct evidence that the employer’s action was based only on age. In the past, because employers are careful to hide direct evidence of discriminatory motives, after a plaintiff had provided evidence of age discrimination the burden shifted to the employer to prove its legitimate reason for firing or demoting the older employee.
In this ruling, the high court appears to have just upended the prevailing understanding of employment discrimination law dating back to the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a key Supreme Court ruling in 1989, and effectively pronounced that age discrimination is simply less important to remedy than race, gender, ethnic or disability discrimination.
Given how widespread layoffs of older employees are in this economy, the court just substantially undercut the only federal protection those employees have.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter (yes, another 5-4 decision), called the majority’s opinion “particularly inappropriate” given the “unambiguous history” of courts interpreting the application of the age discrimination law in the same way as other employment discrimination prohibitions.
“I disagree not only with the court’s interpretation of the statute, but also with its decision to engage in unnecessary lawmaking,” he wrote.
This afternoon, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also weighed in on the decision with a statement.
“In the Supreme Court’s decision today, five justices acted to disregard precedent and ignore the plain reading and common understanding of the statute that Congress passed to protect Americans from discrimination based on their age,” he said, adding: “By disregarding congressional intent and the time-honored understanding of the statute, a five member majority of the Court has today stripped our most senior American employees of important protections.”