On June 14, 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a public meeting entitled “The ADEA @ 50 – More Relevant Than Ever,” to commemorate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act’s 50th anniversary and to “explore the state of age discrimination in America today and the challenges it poses for the future.” Participants in the meeting included Victoria Lipnic, newly-appointed Chairman of the EEOC, and various workers’ advocates who provided their thoughts on the perceived increasing prevalence of age discrimination in the workplace. Despite the enactment of the ADEA a half-century ago, the participants cited various statistics demonstrating the difficulty still facing older individuals in the workplace. This discrimination faced by older workers in an aging-American workforce coupled with various statements by Chairman Lipnic regarding the ADEA are signals to employers that ADEA enforcement may receive an increased focus during the Trump administration. In a previous post, we discussed the impact of Chairman Lipnic’s appointment and the direction of the EEOC under her new leadership and highlighted that ADEA enforcement would be one of the agency’s main focuses.
On October 5, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc, held that an unsuccessful job applicant “cannot sue an employer for disparate impact [under § 4(a)(2) of the ADEA] because [an] applicant has no ‘status as an employee.’” Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., — F.3d —, No. 15-10602, 2016 WL 5800001, at *1 (11th Cir. Oct. 5, 2016).
In February of 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released detailed information and statistics summarizing the charges of discrimination that the agency received throughout its 2015 fiscal year. The EEOC is the administrative agency charged with implementing and enforcing a number of federal anti-discrimination employment statutes, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Under each of these statutes, employees seeking to bring a claim of unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation must first file a charge with the EEOC. The recently released report provides helpful information regarding the types of charges that employees filed in the 2015 fiscal year, which ran from October 1, 2014 to September 20, 2015.
On December 7, 2015, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania permitted a plaintiff to pursue discrimination claims alleging that she had been forced to retire as a result of her age and disability status—despite the fact that she had voluntarily agreed to retire as part of a union grievance settlement. This case, Melan v. Belle Vernon Area School District, serves as a warning to employers settling grievances under a collective bargaining agreement that implicate employees’ federally protected rights.
In the past few months, the EEOC has filed two federal lawsuits challenging what might be considered “run of the mill” separation agreements. Such separation or severance agreements have become a relatively common practice when the employment relationship is terminated, as the employer can offer a severance payment in exchange for a broad release of potential claims. These agreements provide employers with the finality that is necessary for making business decisions, risk assessments, long-term plans, and the like. In cases in which there are potentially viable claims, settling them immediately avoids the time and expense of litigation. And even if the employee would not have had any viable claims against the employer, merely avoiding the possibility of litigation and its costs is usually well worth the amount of the severance payment. The indication that EEOC is taking a closer look at these agreements is thus concerning to employers and the lawyers who represent them.
The EEOC recently voted to move forward on new regulations that will likely make it easier for older workers to bring disparate impact claims, and harder for employers to defend against such claims. The EEOC is taking the position that employers have to prove their choices are reasonable when adopting policies that might adversely affect older workers, and the rules provide several guidelines for consideration. In light of the new regulations, employers should revisit the factors used in making hiring, promotion, and termination decisions and take steps to minimize the use of subjective criteria and procedures. Employers should also consider the likelihood that litigation costs may increase as more cases may survive summary judgment, and consult with legal counsel to determine whether additional precautions must be put into place to proactively address potential disparate impact issues.
In recent months the federal government has announced a number of initiatives designed to increase the employment of individuals with disabilities in both the private and government sectors. These measures send a clear message to employers: audit your practices now to ensure adequate outreach and accessibility to the disabled.
Earlier this summer the House Judiciary Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held hearings on H.R. 3721, a/k/a the “Protecting Older Workers From Discrimination Act” (POWADA), which was introduced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s controversial 5-4 decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. In the decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court held that under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), a plaintiff pursuing a disparate treatment claim for age discrimination must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the employee would not have suffered an adverse employment action “but for” his age. The Court held that the text of the ADEA did not authorize “mixed motives” claims, and that the burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer, even when there is evidence that the plaintiff’s age was a motivating factor in the adverse decision.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently held—consistent with other courts that have considered the issue—that “insurance agents are independent contractors and not employees for purposes of various federal employment statutes,” including ERISA, the ADEA, and Title VII. In Murray v. Principal Financial Group, Inc., case number 09-16664, the panel unanimously affirmed a district court order granting summary judgment in favor of a purported employer because it found that the plaintiff was an independent contractor, not an employee entitled to the protections of Title VII. The panel’s opinion clarifies the appropriate test for distinguishing between employees and independent contractors in the context of Title VII, and concludes that despite apparent precedent for multiple tests, there is, in fact, only one.
Committees in both the House and the Senate heard testimony this week regarding the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (H.R. 3721 and S. 1756). Democrats introduced the Act last fall with hopes of restoring employees’ rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) by overturning the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs. Inc., 557 U.S. __ (2009).