While attentions have been focused elsewhere, the Supreme Court continues to operate remotely and release decisions. Here are recent highlights from the highest court:
Clarified Standards for federal ADEA and Section 1981 Claims
The Supreme Court has ruled on two cases recently regarding the standards for proving employment discrimination claims. Each case determined which of two standards was necessary to prove a claim:
- The “but for” standard, which requires an employee to show that the employer would have reached a different decision if the protected characteristic wasn’t considered; or
- The “motivating factor” standard, which requires employees to show that the protected characteristic was one of several factors that led to an adverse employment action.
In Babb v. Wilkie, the Court found that federal employees may prove age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) using the more lenient “motivating factor” standard. For private sector employees, the Supreme Court has already ruled that employees must use the “but for” standard, but the court noted that the federal-sector provision in the ADEA is worded differently from its private-sector counterpart. However, federal employees will still need to show discrimination based on the stricter “but for” standard to receive remedies under the ADEA.
In Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Media, the Court held that the “but for” standard applies to claims under 42 U.S.C. 1981 (Section 1981). This means that employees bringing claims for employment discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity under Section 1981 may only prove their case using the “but for” standard. This ruling did not impact the standards under Title VII, which allows employees to prove race discrimination using the “motivating factor” standard.
Takeaway: The difference between these standards can be significant in practice. The motivating factor test requires employees to show that the protected characteristic was one of several reasons that led to the action. The but-for test requires the employee to show that the decision would not have happened, but for the protected characteristic.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent in Babb, cautioned that applying this more lenient standard could result in the federal government facing more ADEA lawsuits. Meanwhile, civil rights groups have raised concerns that the Comcast decision disadvantages victims of race discrimination, who are “in the least advantageous position to know” whether race was the but for cause of a decision, rather than one of several factors.
EEOC Investigatory Powers
The Supreme Court declined to review a decision from the Ninth Circuit ruling that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may continue to investigate a charge of discrimination after it has issued a right-to-sue letter.
In VF Jeanswear v. EEOC, Lori Bell, a former salesperson for VF Jeanswear filed a gender discrimination charge with the EEOC—a required administrative step before filing a federal lawsuit. The EEOC issued Bell a notice of right to sue, and she subsequently filed a lawsuit against VF. Nevertheless, more than a year after issuing the notice of right to sue, the EEOC sent VF a subpoena requesting information about its employees. When VF refused to comply with the subpoena, the EEOC went to court to enforce it. The Ninth Circuit found that the subpoena was enforceable, because it was relevant to the allegations in Bell’s charge, even though the information requested was about practices that did not affect Bell.
Although the Ninth Circuit’s decision conflicted with a previous Fifth Circuit holding that issuing a right to sue notice terminates the EEOC’s ability to investigate, the Supreme Court declined to weigh in on the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
Takeaway: Employers should be aware that—although rare—the EEOC may continue to investigate a charge, even after a notice of right to sue has been issued. Outside of the Fifth Circuit, the employer may be required to comply with such a subpoena. At some point in the future, the Supreme Court hopefully will resolve this circuit split.