Last Term in Gross v. FBL Financials, a 5-4 decision written by Justice Thomas, the Court decided that a plaintiff bringing a claim of individual disparate treatment age discrimination — an ADEA action — must prove, by a preponderance of evidence, that age was the “but-for” cause of defendant’s treatment of plaintiff. Thus, unlike Title VII, the burden of persuasion never shifts on the issue of linking what happened to plaintiff— “an adverse employment action” — to defendant’s intent to discriminate, even if plaintiff had produced evidence that age was “a motivating factor” of the defendant. This is an important discrimination case since the Court appears to be adding age cases to discrimination cases under the ADA (before its recent amendments) that deserve lesser enforcement than the Title VII claims of race, color, sex, national origin and religion discrimination. It will have ramifications in other areas of discrimination law, including retaliation cases and cases brought under 42 U.S.C. 1981. It even raises the question whether the iconic McDonnell Douglas v. Green approach to proving defendant’s intent to discriminate applies in age act cases. (So far, the two circuits deciding that question continue to apply McDonnell Douglas).
For those not interested in employment discrimination law, of which I suppose there may be a few, this may not seem a startling decision. But for those attuned to discrimination litigation and to Court watchers generally, the decision came as a quite a surprise. Most surprising is that the Court answered a question not presented to it for decision. In most situations when the Court determines that some question other than the one presented has come to the fore, certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted or the case is remanded to the lower courts to decide this new question.
The question originally presented in Gross was: “Must a plaintiff present direct evidence of discrimination in order to obtain a mixed-motive instruction in a non-Title VII discrimination case?” What this referred to was Title VII authority that allowed burden shifting to the defendant of the issue of linkage between defendant’s intent to discriminate – the employer’s motivation for its action — and plaintiff’s harm and how that burden shifting might apply in age discrimination cases. Long story short, the Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion back in a 1989 Title VII sex discrimination case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, came to be viewed by the lower courts as the holding since her opinion was seen as the narrowest basis for the decision in which there was no majority. She required plaintiff to introduce “direct” evidence of discrimination in order to rely on a “substantial factor” test of linkage that shifted the burden of persuasion to the defendant to prove a same-decision defense. The 1991 Civil Rights Act then amended Title VII so that plaintiffs established liability by showing defendant’s intent to discriminate was only “a motivating factor,” with the burden then shifting to the defendant to prove the same-decision defense to full remedies, not to liability. The new provisions did not mention “direct” evidence and so Title VII was interpreted in Desert Palace v. Costa as not requiring any “direct” evidence threshold to the use of the new “a motivating factor” standard.
The question presented in Gross was how that all worked out in an age discrimination case. Up until the employer filed its reply brief, the case proceeded on the assumption that burden shifting applied, with the question being whether or not the plaintiff needed to point out “direct” evidence to take advantage of that shift in the burden of persuasion. Raised for the first time in its reply brief to plaintiff’s brief on the substance, the employer argued that a prior question needed to be answered before that question could be decided: Was burden shifting ever available in an ADEA case? The Court agreed that it should answer that question instead of the one presented and answered it in favor of defendant. Thus, the original question presented was mooted out.
For Court watchers, the more interesting question is why the employer decided so late in the game to try to shift the focus of the case.