In the 1964 Christmas television classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, prospector Yukon Cornelius, while in search of silver and gold (or is it gold and silver?), declares that the frightful Abominable Snowmonster of the North, who evokes fear and trembling in anyone who sees him, “is nothing without his choppers,” after toymaker turned dentist, Hermey the Elf, extracts all of the monster’s teeth. Consistent with Yukon’s observation, the United States Supreme Court, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority, in the recent case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343 (U.S. 2009), in what has become a landmark decision, may have used its judicial pliers to extract the teeth of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) for claims brought thereunder by plaintiffs who feel they were victims of age discrimination.
In Gross, the Plaintiff was at the time of the alleged actionable discrimination, a 54-year-old male claims administrator director who had worked for the Defendant for 30 years when Defendant elected to reassign Gross to the position of claims project coordinator. Simultaneously, Defendant reassigned Gross’ former subordinate, a woman in her early forties, to a newly created position that carried with it most of Gross’ former responsibilities. Gross believed his reassignment to be effectively a demotion, and that he was discriminated against based on his age, and he brought suit against Defendant under the ADEA claiming age discrimination.
At the conclusion of the trial of this matter at the District Court level, the Judge, over Defendant’s objections, instructed the jury that a verdict must be entered against the Defendant if Gross proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Defendant demoted him and Gross’ age was the motivating factor in Defendant’s decision to demote him. The jury was further instructed that Gross’ age was a motivating factor if it played a part or role in the Defendant’s decision to demote him. In other words, if the Defendant’s motives were a mix of lawful and unlawful (e.g.: age discrimination) reasons for demotion, then a verdict would have to be entered against the Defendant. Finally, the jury was instructed that if the Defendant proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it would have demoted Gross regardless of age, a verdict would have to be entered against Gross. This portion of the jury instructions presumes that the burden of proof shifts from Gross, who has to prove that age was the motivating factor in Defendant’s decision, to Defendant, who has to prove that it would have demoted Gross regardless of his age.
Gross was victorious at the District Court level causing the Defendant to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The Circuit Court reversed and remanded the District Court decision for a new trial as a result of what it found to have been improper jury instructions. Gross appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The question presented to that Court was whether a case under the ADEA requires (1) a shifting burden of proof and (2) could successfully proceed when an employer takes a discriminatory action against an employee based upon mixed motives. By including these two elements when enunciating jury instructions, the District Court implicitly requested the jury to apply an analysis required for alleged discrimination pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as interpreted by the landmark case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 US 228 (1989). The Court first examined whether a shifting burden of proof is warranted under the ADEA. It then examined whether the ADEA allows for a claim of mixed motives or requires a “but-for” analysis, id est but for the plaintiff’s age, the employer would not have taken the alleged discriminatory action.
As the District Court’s jury instructions were an application of the requirements under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the primary focus of the Court’s analysis was a comparison of the language of the ADEA with that of Title VII. When making its comparison, the Court, through Justice Thomas’ opinion writing for the majority, also took note of the fact that Congress has amended both Title VII and the ADEA, with some amendments occurring simultaneously. Ultimately, Justice Thomas’ textual analysis of the respective statutes is actually quite simple. First, Justice Thomas observed that the ADEA contains absolutely no language regarding a shifting of burdens of proof while Title VII does have such language. Second, Justice Thomas also noted that the ADEA does not contain any language implying that proving that an employer acted with mixed-motives is sufficient to warrant a judgment in favor of an allegedly discriminated-against plaintiff. Instead, as Justice Thomas pointed out, the ADEA specifically says that a discriminatory act must be “because of” an individual’s age. After a somewhat extensive, and perhaps torturously overwrought, dictionary and linguistic examination of the phrase “because of,” Justice Thomas concluded that a “but for” analysis is consistent with the aforesaid language. Finally, Justice Thomas, attempting to divine the mental intent of the legislators responsible for amending and voting for the changes to the ADEA years in the past, suggested that since both Title VII and the ADEA were amended around the same time, and the mixed-motives language inserted into Title VII was not correspondingly inserted into the ADEA, a logical conclusion could be drawn that Congress did not want and/or intend the ADEA to allow claims to successfully proceed in cases involving mixed-motives.
Justice Stevens, in his dissent, argued that burden shifting, and, therefore, permitting mixed-motives cases, ought to be permitted under the ADEA as the ADEA was drafted, in haec verba, from Title VII and that Title VII analysis has, for quite some time, been commonly applied to the ADEA by the United States Supreme Court. Furthermore, he explained that the phrase “because of” does not require the rigid and exclusive meaning that is synonymous with “but for” applied by Justice Thomas. Justice Stevens argues that “because of” can certainly permit multiple motives, including a discriminatory one, but does not, on its face, require a single motive as Justice Thomas suggests. Justice Stevens also pointed out that the cases under ADEA have regularly allowed burden-shifting and mixed-motives cases and one cannot conjure some sort of presumption, through an attempt to divine significant meaning from a non-action by Congress, from Congress’ amending Title VII and the ADEA differently. Indeed, as burden-shifting and mixed motives cases were already permitted under the Court’s previous rulings, why would Congress need to codify it? Justice Stevens argues that Congress’ lack of action confirms their approval of existing case law under the ADEA. Justice Breyer, in his rather brief dissent, simply focused upon the fact that a requirement to prove “but for” with direct evidence is, at its core, a requirement to prove what someone else’s thoughts were; an impossible task even for the thinker himself, especially after so much time and influences come to pass after the suit has been filed. For Justice Breyer, a “but for” analysis requires a plaintiff to engage in finding proof of hypothetical thoughts; proof that, in reality, could never be found, and resulting in a toothless ADEA that could never be effectively employed by plaintiffs. For Justice Beyer, Congressional intent was to have an ADEA under which plaintiffs could have successful claims, as opposed to an ADEA that requires a plaintiff to prove the impossible, effectively foreclosing any viable actions for age discrimination.
Obviously, Justice Thomas’ opinion had less-than-favorable results for Gross. As Gross’s employer did not have to prove what its actual motive was for demoting him, and Gross could not prove that “but for” his age he would not have been demoted, Gross’s matter was remanded to proceed in a manner consistent with Justice Thomas’ opinion. In sum, pursuant to the current authoritative precedent described herein, a plaintiff bringing an action under the ADEA must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his age was the only factor motivating the alleged discriminatory action through the presentation of direct evidence in order to have a successful suit. As it stands now, plaintiffs bringing suit under the ADEA are required to plunge their way into the nearly impossible task of entering someone else’s mind to learn how he made his decisions. The Gross decision could not have come at a worse time because the declining economy has impacted heavily on older employees, resulting in a substantial increase in ADEA claims being filed at the state and federal discrimination administrative agency level by impacted employees. It makes their task of proving discrimination far harder. Although there is an effort by interest groups acting on behalf of employees within the ADEA age purviews to have Congress enact a law that would repudiate Gross, that effort may not be successful, especially given the outcome of the latest Congressional elections and the current political makeup of Congress.
After Gross, Hermey the Elf’s advice about the once-fearsome, but now-toothless, Abominable Snowmonster holds equally true for employers when faced with the post-Gross ADEA: “don’t let this big blowhard scare you anymore, just walk right past him.”
This article also appeared in the Philadelphia Bar Association’s “Upon Further Review” on January 6, 2011 and can also be found here on my website.