A group of employees over the age of 40 had their jobs eliminated in 1996 by Knolls Atomic Power Lab Inc., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. Of the 31 employees laid off, 30 were more than 40 years old. The workforce as a whole was 60 percent over 40.
Several laid-off employees sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, using a "disparate impact" theory. A jury found in favor of the plaintiffs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York (by a 2-1 vote) vacated the district court judgment and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment for the employer. The 2nd Circuit majority held that it is the plaintiffs’ burden to prove that the employer’s justification was unreasonable.
On review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices emphasized (by a vote of 7-1) that employees alleging age discrimination must first isolate and identify the specific employment practices that allegedly discriminate against older employees. Congress placed the burden on employers to prove their decisions were ultimately motivated by reasonable factors other than age. The court acknowledged that "putting employers to the work of persuading fact-finders that their choices are reasonable makes it harder and costlier to defend" and that "this will sometimes affect the way employers do business with their employees." Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Lab., 2008 U.S. LEXIS 5029.
Impact: The high court makes it more difficult for employers to defend themselves against age discrimination suits, and employers—not plaintiffs—bear the burden of persuading a court that discriminatory employment decisions were based on "reasonable factors other than age
Workforce Management, July 14, 2008, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!