When Jack Gross lost his title as claims administration vice president with FBL Financial Group Inc.’s Iowa Farm Bureau division he saw it as a demotion, even though he kept his salary and his responsibilities. Then he started receiving poorer job evaluations. Two years later, Gross was demoted and his job given to a younger woman.
He sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination, but which, unlike Title VII, hasn’t received the same attention from Congress over the years.
Gross won $47,000 from an Iowa jury. The verdict was upheld on appeal. But Thursday, in a historic employment decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the lower courts in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, declaring that it is up to plaintiffs to prove age bias was the reason for an adverse action against them by an employer.
The court’s decision throws out a long-standing rule by which an employee could prevail on an age bias claim if they could prove age was a factor, even if it wasn’t the only one. Once the employee plaintiff established that with evidence, it was up to the employer to show a legitimate reason for taking the action it did.
These so-called “mixed motive” cases reflect such real-world situations as where layoffs fall disproportionally on older workers who tend to have higher pay than younger workers. In that kind of case, replacing older workers with younger ones may be one of multiple reasons considered by the employer. To make a bias case, however, a dismissed worker previously needed only to show that age discrimination was a part of the decision. That shifted the legal burden to the employer who then needed to show that the decision — in this example a layoff — would have been handled the same way regardless of worker age.
The Supreme Court ruling, written by Clarence Thomas and decided on a 5-4 vote, invalidates this two-step process — shifting the burden of proof — and places the entire burden of proof on the employee.
“The burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer even when a plaintiff has produced some evidence that age was one motivating factor in that decision,” Thomas writes in his decision. keep reading…