In Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a plaintiff must present direct evidence of discrimination in order to obtain a mixed-motive instruction in a non-Title VII discrimination case.
In the case, Plaintiff Gross was employed by FBL Financial Group since 1971. In 2001 he held the title of claims administration director. Gross was reassigned in 2003 to the position of claims project coordinator. He was 54 years old. Many of the job duties Gross previously performed were transferred to a newly created position and that position was given to a female former subordinate of Gross who was in her early 40’s. While Gross and the co-worker received the same compensation, Gross considered his reassignment and reallocation of job responsibilities a demotion. Consequently he filed suit alleging age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. At trial, the jury was asked to decide whether age was “a motivating factor” in the decision to reassign and reallocate Gross’s job responsibilities. This permitted the jury to find in Gross’ favor if even one of many reasons for the job changes was Gross’ age. FBL requested a jury instruction that would have only permitted the jury to find for Gross if he showed that the challenged job actions would not have occurred “but for” Gross’ age. The jury found for Gross.
On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court found that it was improper to charge the jury under “a motivating factor” standard of causation. The U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff asserting an age discrimination claim under a disparate (i.e., intentional) treatment theory must prove that age was the “but for” cause of the challenged employment action and the burden of proof never shifts to the employer to show that it would have taken the same action regardless of the age of the plaintiff.
This is a significant, but perhaps short-lived, win for employers at the Supreme Court. Like other decisions of the Supreme Court that the Democratically-controlled Congress dislikes, expect quick legislation to be proposed to amend the ADEA to reinstate the “motivating factor” standard of causation.