Justices place burden of proof on employers
The Supreme Court enhanced the ability of older workers to bring job discrimination claims, in a decision that comes as the nation’s workforce is aging and many companies are downsizing and lying off workers.
By a 7-1 vote, the court ruled that when a company asserts layoffs of older workers that were based on factors other than the worker’s age, the company has the burden of proving those factors are valid.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC), which handles age complaints, reports that age claims have increased steadily over the past decade. About 19,000 are filed annually.
Lawyers who represent employees cheered the decision, as business groups termed it a disappointment. “Any other result would have made it virtually impossible for employees to successfully challenge (seemingly) neutral corporate policies… such as reductions-in-force… that some employers have used to target older workers”, said Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq., an elder law attorney in Freehold, NJ.
Employers can defend themselves by showing that the lopsided impact was based on “reasonable factors” other than age, such as performance criteria or needed skills. The question was whether the employer bears the burden of proving that a policy was based on such non-age factors, or whether it is up to the worker to prove the factors were illegitimate.
Who wins or loses often hangs on who has the burden of proof.
Thursday’s dispute traced to the mid-1990s and the end of the Cold War. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Upstate New York, which had helped maintain nuclear-powered warships, was forced to scale back. About 100 workers took a buyout offer, and 31 others were laid off. Thirty of those laid off were at least 40 years old. Clifford Meacham was among those who alleged that the layoffs were aimed at older employees.
Knolls had said they were based on objective factors such as performance, flexibility and critical skills. Meacham won a jury verdict, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit eventually ruled Meacham had not proven that Knolls’ justification was invalid.
In an opinion by Justice David Souter, the high court reversed based on the standard of proof used. He said the act’s text and structure put the burden of proof on employers.
“There is no denying that putting employers to the work of persuading (judges) that their choices are reasonable makes it harder and costlier to defend” various policies, Souter wrote. He added, however, that Congress “set the balance where it is” and that those who object to that interpretation should take it up with Congress.
The court adopted the position of the EEOC, which had sided with Meacham. Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. Thomas, who was chairman of the EEOC during the Reagan administration, said he did not think the law extends to coverage for policies that do not directly discriminate.
Justice Stephen Breyer took no part in the ruling.