Good luck to anyone who is trying to figure out what is going on with the Gross v. FBL Financial Services case argued in the Supreme Court yesterday. I have been doing this work for three decades and I think it’s almost impossible.
For one, in my opinion, the outcome will not affect most employees who are trying to bring age discrimination cases. Two, even most lawyers who do this work don’t get bogged down in the subject of the argument because it’s just too complicated, and not particularly beneficial, but let me try to explain it.
Jack Gross sued his employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) alleging that he was demoted because of his age. The Defendant employer, FBL Financial Services:
- denied that it took Gross’ age into consideration
- said even if it did, it had a legitimate reason for doing so, and
- it would have made the same decision anyway.
The questions presented are:
- In a “mixed-motive” age discrimination case — where both legitimate and illegitimate reasons motivated the employment decision, should the employer be permitted to avoid liability if proves that it would have taken the same action anyway?
- What kind of evidence needs to be presented — direct or circumstantial — to prove a “mixed-motive” case?
- Does the discriminatory reason need to be a “substantial reason” or “a motivating reason” for the employee to prevail?
- Which party bears the burden of proof?
The answers turns on whether the Supreme Court will apply the older mixed motive analysis under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins or the newer standard under the Civil Rights Act of 1991. (“CRA”); or (less likely) whether the Court will overrule Price Waterhouse as requested by the employer-respondent.
In the 1989 Price Waterhouse decision, the plaintiff Ann Hopkins presented direct evidence (as opposed to circumstantial evidence) that she was discriminated against when she was denied a promotion to partnership. The defendant basically said that even though it may have discriminated, it would have reached the same result anyway in denying Ms. Hopkins her promotion.
In it’s fractured decision, the Supreme Court came up with a new way of proving discrimination in what it called a “mixed-motive” case. Simply said, this new method of proof set forth a complicated and confusing burden shifting framework.
After the Price Waterhouse decision, courts began allowing employers who used illegal factors in employment decisions to avoid liability by merely showing that they would have made the same decision anyway even without considering the unlawful factor.
In other words, the unintended consequence of the decision was that employers were getting off the hook in the face of direct evidence of discrimination.
As a result, Congress overturned that portion of Price Waterhouse when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In so doing, it specifically lowered the standards for employees in “mixed-motive” cases. Theoretically, the CRA makes it easier for employees to win these cases. Under the Act:
- the employer is not absolved of liability in “mixed-motive cases” even if it proves it would have made the same decision anyway, but damages to the employee are restricted.
- in order to take advantage of the mixed-motive theory and shift the burden to the defendant, the plaintiff must “demonstrate” that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice
The legislation was silent as to what type of evidence (direct, circumstantial, clear and convincing, etc.) the plaintiff needed to successfully prove the illegal motivation.
The issue of what kind of evidence was required was decided by the Supreme Court in Desert Palace, Inc. v.Costa in 2003. According to that decision, Congress intended the term“demonstrate” to mean that an employee could prove his or her case by direct or circumstantial evidence. As the Court stated:
Title VII’s silence with respect to the type of evidence required in mixed-motive cases . . .suggests that we should not depart from the “[c]onventional rul[e] of civil litigation [that] generally appl[ies] in Title VII cases.” … That rule requires a plaintiff to prove his case “by a preponderance of the evidence,” . . . by using “direct or circumstantial evidence,” Postal Service Bd. of Governors v. Aikens,460 U.S. 711, 714, n. 3 (1983).
You would think that would settle it but there’s always a wrinkle, and the wrinkle for Mr. Gross is that the CRA applies to Title VII and does not specifically mention the Age Discrimination in Employment Act . As a result, according to FBL Financial, neither the CRA nor the Desert Palace decision apply to Gross’ case.
One argument, likely to be favored by conservative justices like Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito, is a textualist approach arguing that Congress knew what it was doing, could have expressly included the ADEA in the CRA of 1991, but chose not to for whatever reason. If we are unhappy with the current state of affairs, the argument continues, the proper approach is to allow Congress to amend the CRA of 1991 to include ADEA claims.
The flip side is that disparate treatment claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which is what this is) are always interpreted identically to claims brought under Title VII (which prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) on issues like the ones before the Court.
Gross’ argument is that there would be no reason not to interpret the ADEA consistently with Title VII and no reason not to do so in this case. That is in fact what many courts have done. (ie the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Blair v. Henry Filters)
Whatever the outcome, as a practical matter I don’t think it will change the way employees and their lawyers go about proving age discrimination cases:
- Plaintiffs are going to present all the evidence they have whether it’s direct or circumstantial, or both.
- Most of us who represent employees have never seen the benefit of getting a “mixed motive” instruction even when we have direct evidence of discrimination because it’s too confusing to the jury.
- It’s just a much easier and better standard for employees in discrimination cases to have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, that age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability was a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.
For sure, the decision will be interesting to Supreme Court observers to see how the justices line up on this one. Other than that, it’s not very interesting at all, but since it’s not often that an age discrimination cases hit the Supreme Court, it’s got to be talked about even though I am the first to admit –it’s mostly academic.