In a turn by the Supreme Court of the United States, the court handed down its ruling June 19, 2008 in favor of workers suing Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory for age discrimination. Notable in this decision is the fact that under Chief Justice John Roberts the Supreme Court repeatedly sided with business. Some critics even voiced concerns that the Roberts court went out of its way to side with big business, particularly in employment cases. This decision stands as a kind of reversal of that implied policy.
In Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, the National Government ordered its contractor, Knolls, to reduce its work force. As a result Knolls had its managers score their subordinates on “performance”, “flexibility”, and “critical skills”. These scores, along with points for years of service, were to used to determine who would be laid off.
30 of the 31 employees let go were at least 40-years-old. Meacham was one of those 30. The lawsuit was initiated claiming disparate-impact under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Disparate-impact is when an employment practice has a greater impact on one group over another. These “employment practices” can be anything from written tests, height and weight requirements, educational requirements, and subjective procedures, such as interviews. Under disparate-impact one doesn’t have to prove that there was an intent to discriminate against a certain group, but just that the result is discrimination.
In this case the key issue was whether or not Knolls’s basis for lay-offs was skewed according to age. The managers all scored these employees and thus used their own discretion to come up with their decisions.
At a jury trial, Meacham won. But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, first affirmed, but then vacated the verdict and remanded the case. The Second Circuit, applying the intervening decision in Smith v. City of Jackson, held for Knolls stating that the ruling was untenable because a “business necessity” standard rather than a “reasonableness” test was applied in assessing the employer’s reliance on factors other than age in the layoff decisions. It also stated that Meacham had not carried the burden of persuasion as to the reasonableness of Knolls’s non-age factors, meaning that Meacham had not proved that the other factors judged were unreasonable.
Typically, the burden under disparate impact has been that the plaintiff, in this case Meacham, must prove that the challenged practice had an adverse impact on a protected group. In this case they used statistics to show that the results of the evaluation were so skewed based on age that they couldn’t have occurred by chance.
In turn, the defendant, in this case Knolls, must prove that the challenged practice is consistent with “business necessity” by being job-related to the position. So when the Second Circuit overturned the initial ruling they did so because Meacham had not first proved that it was unreasonable that Knolls had applied the practice in question and therefore made it unnecessary for Knolls to then prove a “business necessity”.
So then the question before the Supreme Court was: Does the employer have to prove that those reasonable nonage-related factors existed, or do the fired workers have to disprove it?
The Supreme Court considering this issue reversed the Second Circuit in a 7-1 split. The court held that the burden was on the employer, meaning that Knolls had to prove that they relied on other factors that weren’t age-related.
The shift of the burden to the employer is a break-through for employees, especially given that this Supreme Court has regularly ruled against the rights of employees in employment cases. In the Lilly Ledbetter case the court adjusted the deadline to file a claim in civil rights cases, thereby ruling that she filed her claim too late. That decision incited much criticism that it was not supported by any actual law.
And while Meacham definitely racks up points for workers, the Court also handed down some anti-worker decisions in recent weeks. One struck down a California law that would have prevented employers from forcing workers to join a union. Another ruled against older workers in a pension case. On the back of the Meacham decision is the hope that this Supreme Court will more regularly follow the intent of the law in cases supporting workers’ rights.
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