Posts Tagged: age discrimination

Babb v. Wilkie: Causation in Federal Sector Age Discrimination

In Babb v. Wilkie, Secretary of Veteran Affairs, No. 18-882, ___ U.S. ___ (Apr. 6, 2020), the Supreme Court held that the federal-sector provision of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a), demands that personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age. This means that a federal sector employee can prevail on an age discrimination claim without proving but-for causation. However, the presence or absence of but-for causation is important in determining the available remedies.

Facts

Babb was a federal employee, a pharmacist, at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (the “VA”). Babb sued the VA for, inter alia, age discrimination in various adverse personnel actions. The VA offered various alleged nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions. The District Court granted the VA’s summary judgment motion after finding Babb had established a prima facie case, that the VA had proffered legitimate reasons for the challenged actions, and that no jury could reasonably conclude that those reasons were pretextual.

Babb appealed. She argued the District Court’s requirement that age be a but-for cause of a personnel action was inappropriate under the ADEA’s federal-sector provision. Because that section requires most federal-sector “personnel actions” affecting individuals aged 40 and older be made “free from any discrimination based on age,” Babb argued such a personnel action is unlawful if age is a factor in the challenged decision — even if many other factors having nothing to do with age were also factors. Under Babb’s reading of the ADEA, therefore, even if the VA’s proffered reasons in her case were not pretextual, the VA still violated the ADEA if age discrimination played any part at all in the decision. The Eleventh Circuit rejected that argument, citing binding circuit precedent, and Babb appealed again.

The Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court reversed. It held that the plain meaning of § 633a(a) demands that personnel actions be “untainted by any consideration of age.” However, the Court further explained that for an employee to obtain reinstatement, damages, or other relief related to the end result of an employment decision, the employee needed to show but-for causation — that is, that a personnel action would have been different if age had not been taken into account. If age discrimination played a lesser role in the decision, other remedies, like injunctions or other forward-looking relief, may be appropriate.

In short, the VA argued that the ADEA’s federal-sector provision imposes liability only when age is a but-for cause of an employment decision, while Babb argued that it prohibits any adverse consideration of age in the decision-making process. The Court sided with Babb, holding that the plain meaning of the statutory text shows that age need not be a but-for cause of an employment decision in order for there to be a violation. No. 18-882 at 4–7.

First, the Court did a close reading of the statutory language:

All personnel actions affecting employees or applicants … who are at least 40 … shall be made free from any discrimination based on age.

29 U.S.C. § 633a(a)

The Court noted the phrase “free from” means “untainted,” and the word “any” underscores the broad scope of that phrase. The Court had previously held that the normal definition of “discrimination” is “differential treatment.” Jackson v. Birmingham Bd. of Ed., 544 U.S. 167, 174 (2005). And “[i]n common talk, the phrase ‘based on’ indicates a but-for causal relationship[.]’” Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 63 (2007). The “shall be made” phrase denotes a duty, “emphasizing the importance of avoiding the taint.” No. 18-882 at 4–5.

The Court then determined that the statutory language indicated age must be a but-for cause of the discrimination alleged, but not of the challenged personnel action.

The Court grounded its reasoning in two aspects of the statute’s syntax. First, it observed that the adjectival phrase “based on age” modifies the noun “discrimination,” not the phrase “personnel actions.” Thus, age must be a but-for cause of discrimination but not the personnel action itself. Second, the adverbial phrase “free from any discrimination” modifies the verb “made” and describes how a personnel action must be “made”: in a way that is not tainted by any differential treatment based on age. Id.

The Court therefore determined the plain meaning of § 633a(a) is that the statute does not require proof of but-for causation — that an employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account. Instead, a federal employer violates the statute if it makes age a factor in an employment decision. The Court rejected the VA’s argument, based on the various meanings of particular words, that the statutory text requires more than a federal employer’s “mere consideration” of age in personnel decisions. Id. at 5–7.

Second, the Court rejected the VA’s primary argument, that this “mere consideration” interpretation was undermined by the Court’s decisions interpreting other employment and consumer protection laws as requiring but-for causation. See Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009) (ADEA’s private-sector provision, 29 U.S.C. §623(a)(1)); University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338 (2013) (Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, 42 U.S.C. §2000e–3(a)); Safeco Ins. Co. of America, 551 U.S. 47 (2007) (Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. §1681m(a)).

The Court observed that because the language of § 633a(a) (“free from any discrimination based on age”) is markedly different than the language of those other statutes, those cases are perfectly consistent with the Court’s interpretation of the federal-sector ADEA provision. Nor did the traditional rule favoring but-for causation change the result. While § 633a(a) does requires proof of but-for causation, it requires that proof only for the “discrimination,” not for the personnel action. No. 18-882 at 8-11.

Third, the Court observed that it was not “anomalous” to hold the Federal Government to a higher standard than private employers or state and local governments when it comes to age discrimination. This difference is supported by the ADEA’s legislative history. Specifically, when Congress expanded the ADEA’s scope beyond private employers, it added state and local governments to the private-sector provision’s definition of “employers.” But Congress “deliberately prescribed a distinct statutory scheme applicable only to the federal sector,” Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U.S. 156, 166 (1981), and that federal scheme did away with the private sector provision language. Because the statute’s words are unambiguous, the Court’s job was complete. It would be beyond the Court’s power to second-guess the legislature’s chosen language. No. 18-882 at 11–13.

Finally, after all that, the Court determined that in federal sector ADEA cases but-for causation is nevertheless important in determining the appropriate remedy. The Court concluded for an employee to obtain compensatory damages or other forms of relief related to the end result of an employment decision, the employee must without show that age discrimination was a but-for cause of the employment outcome. The Court observed that this conclusion is supported by basic principles of redress long employed by the Court, as in, for example, Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 103 (1998), and by traditional principles of tort and remedies law. Remedies must be tailored to the injury. Therefore, the Court reasoned, it would not be appropriate to award lost wages or reinstatement to an employee who cannot show age discrimination was a but-for cause of her termination (or other challenged employment decision), since that would mean she would have been terminated even in the absence of any age discrimination. Still, some remedies may be available. Consistent with traditional remedies principles, the Court observed that federal employees who show that age was a but-for cause of differential treatment in an employment decision, but not a but-for cause of the decision itself, can still seek injunctive or other forward-looking relief. No. 18-882 at 13–14.

Analysis

In sum, the Babb Court held that the ADEA’s federal-sector provision demands that personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age. This means that a federal sector employee can prevail on an age discrimination claim without proving but-for causation. However, the presence or absence of but-for causation is important in determining the available remedies. In the absence of but-for causation, the only available remedies may be injunctive or other forward-looking relief.

This article was also published to TimCoffieldAttorney.com.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com. 

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act: Protections for Employees Over 40

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects employees and job applicants age 40 and older from discrimination based on age in hiring, discharge, promotion, compensation, or other terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), an amendment to the ADEA, specifically prohibits employers from denying benefits to older employees, despite the increased costs of providing benefits to employees as they age.  

Prohibitions on Age Discrimination

Enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the ADEA applies to private employers with 20 or more employees, employment agencies, labor organizations, and state, local and federal governments. The purpose of the ADEA and the OWBPA is to promote employment of older workers based on their ability and skill, while protecting them from any form of discrimination or denial of benefits based on their age. As Congress observed in Section 2 of the ADEA, older workers often find themselves disadvantaged in their efforts to retain employment or to regain employment after being displaced from their jobs. 29 U.S.C. § 621. The ADEA sought to level the playing field for olders workers.

Under the ADEA, it is therefore unlawful to discriminate against a person over 40 because of his or her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. Harassing an older worker because of age is also prohibited.

Specifically, Section 4 of the ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer unlawful to:

  • Fail or refuse to hire or discharge any person or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to terms, conditions, compensation, or privileges of employment due to the individual’s age;

  • Reduce the wage rate of any employee based on age; or

  • Limit or classify employees in a way that would deprive or potentially deprive them of employment opportunities.

See 29 U.S.C. § 623. The ADEA also applies to employment agencies, making it unlawful for them to:

  • Fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise discriminate against any individual based on age, or classify or refer any individual for employment based on the individual’s age.

See 29 U.S.C. § 623(b). The ADEA also applies to labor organizations, making it unlawful for them to:

  • Exclude or expel from membership, or otherwise discriminated against due to an individual’s age; or

  • Limit, segregate, or classify its membership, or fail or refuse to refer employment in a way that would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities, because of the individual’s age.

See 42 U.S.C. § 623(c). It’s worth noting that the ADEA does allow employers and other applicable entities to favor older workers based on age even when doing so adversely affects a younger worker who is 40 or older. In other words, employers are allowed to discriminate against young employees based on their age.

Protection from Retaliation

Importantly, the ADEA also makes it unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on age, or for filing an age discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADEA. 29 U.S.C. § 623(d).

Specific Protections

The ADEA also includes a variety of specific protections for older workers in employment advertisements and job notices, apprenticeship programs, and pre-employment inquiries (although there is no prohibition on an employer asking an applicant’s age or date of birth as part of the application process).

Advertisements and Job Notices

The ADEA generally makes it unlawful for an employer to include age preferences, specifications or any limitations to job notices or advertisements. 29 U.S.C. § 623(e).

Apprenticeship Programs

The ADEA also generally makes it unlawful for apprenticeship programs to discriminate on the basis of age.

Pre-employment Inquiries

The ADEA does not specifically prohibit employers from asking an applicant’s date of birth or age. However, an employer’s inquiry about applicants’ ages may disparately impact older workers by discouraging them from applying, or may indicate a possible intent by the employer to discriminate based on age, inconsistent with the requirements of the ADEA.

Regulations interpreting the provisions of the ADEA are available here:

Benefits

Benefits for older workers are protected under the OWBPA amendment to the ADEA, which generally prohibits employers from denying benefits to older employees based on their age. This is a significant protection, as the cost of providing benefits to older employees is generally greater than the cost of providing the same benefits to younger employees. Congress recognized the financial implications of this protection, expressing a concern that the greater costs associated with older workers may create a disincentive for employers to hire older workers. Under limited circumstances, therefore, employers may be permitted to reduce certain benefits based on a worker’s age, provided the cost the employer incurs to provide those benefits to older workers is no less than the cost of providing the benefits to younger workers.   

Waivers of ADEA Claims or Rights

The ADEA and OWBPA also set out specific requirements that permit waivers of age discrimination claims or rights in certain circumstances. For example, employers sometimes offer to pay departing employees a severance payment if the employee will sign an agreement waiving any legal claims he or she might have against the employer, including age discrimination claims under the ADEA. Similarly, an employee might enter into a settlement agreement with her employer to resolve a potential age discrimination claim. Under the OWBPA, for an ADEA waiver to be valid, the waiver must meet minimum standards to be considered “knowing and voluntary.” Among other requirements, a valid ADEA waiver must:

 

  • Be in understandable writing;

 

  • Refer specifically to ADEA rights or claims;

  • Be in exchange for valuable consideration in addition to anything of value to which the employee was already entitled;

  • Not waive rights or claims that may arise in the future;

  • Advise the employee in writing to consult an attorney before signing the waiver;

  • Provide the employee with a certain amount of time to consider the agreement before signing — for individual agreements, at least 21 days, for “group” waiver agreements, at least 45 days, and for any settlements of ADEA discrimination claims, a “reasonable” amount of time.

 

See 29 U.S.C. § 626(f). If an employer requests an ADEA waiver in connection with a reduction in force — such as an exit incentive or other employment termination program involving a group, the minimum requirements for a valid waiver are more extensive. The EEOC has issued a detailed policy document describing the requirements for valid waivers under these circumstances, titled “Understanding Waivers of Discrimination Claims in Employee Severance Agreements.”

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.