U.S. Supreme Court Expands Protections Against Age Discrimination for Federal Workers

By Douglas Lipsky

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) allows federal employees to file a lawsuit over any age bias that influences an adverse employment action, not just when age bias is the determining factor in an employment decision.  

Whether this ruling will be expanded to cover workers in the private sector remains to be seen. In the meantime, if you believe you have been subjected to age discrimination in the workplace, you should consult with an experienced employment lawyer. This article is a brief discussion of the high court’s age discrimination ruling in Babb v. Wilkie.

The Backdrop

The age discrimination case involves Noris Babb, a clinical pharmacist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Ms. Babb originally sued the VA in July 2014, claiming she was:

  • Stripped of her advanced certification
  • Denied a transfer and training opportunities
  • Shorted on holiday pay

Ms. Babb alleged that the VA took these actions because she is a woman over the age of 40. A federal judge in Florida dismissed the case in 2016 and Babb appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in October 2017. Following its own precedent, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal, ruling that the “but for” test should apply, even though the appellate court was inclined to agree with the plaintiff.

In reaching its ruling, the Supreme Court held that federal employees who are suing for reinstatement, back pay and other compensatory damages still need to prove that an employment decision would have been different had age not been taken into account. 

However, the justices also ruled that if age discrimination played a lesser part in the decision, other legal remedies may be appropriate, such as an injunction or other forward-looking relief that a district court may impose.

Why This Matters

While age discrimination is a violation of local, state, and federal law, pursuing a claim can be complicated because courts generally apply the “but for” standard. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Babb v. Wilkie lowers the burden of proof for federal workers in age discrimination claims, even though the “but for” standard continues to be applied under other federal antidiscrimination laws. Nonetheless, pursuing age discrimination continues to be an uphill battle for most employees. 

The best way to protect your rights under the ADEA and other applicable employment discrimination laws is to work with an experienced employment lawyer. At Lipsky Lowe LLP, we have a well-deserved reputation as dedicated advocates of aggrieved employees. When you become our client, we will be the strength in your corner, fighting to enforce your workplace rights.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.