BLAWG

Supreme Court Rejects “Mixed-Motives” Claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Employees (or ex-employees) can make discrimination cases under Title VII by proving that discrimination was either (1) the “determinative factor” in an adverse employment action (disparate treatment), or (2) a “motivating factor” in the adverse action even if nondiscriminatory factors were also involved (“mixed-motives”). Because the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was modeled after Title VII, many courts and employment attorneys assumed that both methods of proving discrimination also applied to the ADEA.

Yesterday, in Gross v. PBL Financial Services Inc., the United States Supreme Court held that the “mixed-motives” method of proving discrimination does not apply to age discrimination claims brought under the ADEA. The Supreme Court assumed that Congress acted deliberately when it amended Title VII in 1991 to authorize “mixed-motives” claims, but did not make a similar amendment to the ADEA. The Supreme Court then interpreted the ADEA’s prohibition against discriminating “because of” an individual’s age to mean that age must be the “but-for” cause of an employer’s adverse action. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that “a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of evidence (which may be direct or circumstantial), that age was the “but-for” cause of the challenged employer decision.”

Clearly, the Gross decision is a victory for employers. However, it may be short-lived as Congress could respond by amending the ADEA to expressly authorize “mixed-motives” age discrimination claims as it did with Title VII. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether the “mixed-motives” method of proving discrimination will apply to age discrimination cases brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

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