Last week, we reported that several senators had introduced new amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") to make it easier for plaintiffs in age discrimination cases to prove their claims. U.S. Senators aren't the only ones busy refining federal age discrimination laws - on March 30, 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published its final rule on the “reasonable factors other than age” (RFOA) defense under the ADEA. Acting in response to two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Smith v. City of Jackson in 2005 and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories in 2008, the rule bring the EEOC regulations in line with Supreme Court precedent and clarifies the scope of the RFOA defense.
In Smith, the Supreme Court held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the ADEA. The Court further held that a practice having a disparate impact on older workers need only be justified by “reasonable” factors other than age; an employer need not satisfy the more rigorous “business necessity” defense applicable to Title VII claims. In Meacham, the Court held that the employer bears the burden of production and persuasion on the RFOA defense.
The regulation points out that the EEOC believes that “reasonable” factors other than age reflects a higher standard than a simple “rational basis” standard. According to the EEOC, equating the RFOA defense with a rational-basis standard would improperly conflate ADEA disparate-treatment and disparate-impact standards of proof: “If an employer attempting to establish the RFOA defense were only required to show that it had acted rationally, then the employer would merely be required to show that it had not engaged in intentional age discrimination.”
The rule provides a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered in determining whether an employment practice is based on RFOA:
- The extent to which the factor is related to the employer’s stated business purpose;
- The extent to which the employer defined the factor accurately and applied the factor fairly and accurately, including the extent to which managers and supervisors were given guidance or training bout how to apply the factor and avoid discrimination;
- The extent to which the employer limited supervisors’ discretion to assess employees subjectively, particularly where the criteria that the supervisors were asked to evaluate are known to be subject to negative age-based stereotypes;
- The extent to which the employer assessed the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers; and
- The degree of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the extent of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took steps to reduce the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps.
The final rule makes clear that the EEOC will take a very dim view of an employer’s RFOA defense where supervisors are given broad discretion to make subjective decisions. Accordingly, prudent employers will take steps to ensure that decisions are made consistent with business purpose, that supervisors are properly trained, and that supervisors exercise their discretion in a way that does not violate the ADEA.
For more information, visit EEOC’s Questions and Answers page. The rule will take effect on April 30, 2012.
On March 12, several senators introduced Senate Bill 2189, known as the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would overturn a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case, Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc, that had made it more difficult for older workers to prove claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). Under the new bill, it would be much easier for employees to prove age discrimination in many cases.
In the Gross case, the Supreme Court held, by a 5-4 margin, that the “mixed motive” analysis of discrimination claims was not available under the ADEA, and that plaintiffs asserting age discrimination must prove that age was the “but for” cause of the adverse employment action. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which codified the mixed motive analysis in cases of race, sex, and other protected statuses, only applied to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and not the ADEA, which is a separate statutory scheme. Under Gross, in ADEA cases the plaintiff was required to prove that age was the “but for” cause of the employment action, not simply a motivating factor.
This bill is sponsored by Senators from both parties (Sen. Harkin [D-IA], Sen. Grassley [R-IA], and Sen. Leahy [D-VA]), but exactly how much support it has remains to be seen. Similar bills were introduced in both the House and Senate in 2009, but neither were voted on. It remains to be seen whether this bill will gain traction or suffer a similar fate.