Last term, the Supreme Court decided a controversial age discrimination case called Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. You can read my blog post about it here, including my prediction -- which has now proven accurate! -- that Congress would try to overturn the holding in the case. (In fairness, I wasn't alone; plenty of others made the same prediction.)
The Gross case held that employees alleging age discrimination have to do more than show that their age was a "motivating factor" in the decision they're complaining about. They must show that their age was what lawyers call the "but for" cause of the decision -- in other words, that the decision would not have been made if not for their age.
This standard is different than the one used for other types of discrimination. In Title VII cases, if the employee can show that a protected characteristic (such as race or national origin) was a motivating factor in the employer's decision, the burden of proof then shifts to the employer, who must prove that the same decision would have been made regardless. The logic behind this procedure is that any consideration of a protected characteristic is improper and illegal. So, for example, if the employee can prove that the employer was motivated, even in part, by the employee's race, the employer bears the responsibility of defending its actions and proving that race was ultimately not the deciding factor. The employer bears this burden because the employer is already at fault for taking race into account at all.
The Gross decision is just the latest indication that age discrimination is treated differently than other kinds of discrimination. In part, that's because age discrimination is prohibited by a different statute, which uses slightly different language than Title VII. But it's also due to our societal belief that age discrimination just isn't as bad as other types of discrimination. (For an interesting take on the reasons that might motivate this belief, check out this editorial from The New York Times this weekend.)
Anyone who has practiced employment law will tell you that you have to prove a lot to win an age discrimination case. Biased comments that would be the smoking gun in a sex or race discrimination case seem to barely raise an eyebrow. There's a long line of cases dismissing statements about workers being "too old," having "senior moments," or needing to get out of the way to make room for "younger, more energetic" employees as stray comments, not sufficient -- and sometimes, not even considered relevant -- to prove discrimination.
Last month, the "Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act" (HR 3721) was introduced in Congress. Its stated purpose is to overturn the Gross decision. It would require courts to follow the same burden shifting procedure in age discrimination cases as they follow in Title VII cases: Once the employee shows that age was a motivating factor in the decision, the employer would have to show that the decision would have been made even if age had not been considered.
If this bill passes, it could make a big difference. As our population ages and competition for scarce jobs increases, age discrimination claims are on the rise. In 2008, the EEOC reported that charges of age discrimination increased more than 28% from the previous year, the largest increase of any type of claim.
To learn more about age discrimination in employment, see The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Lisa Guerin & Amy DelPo (Nolo).