As reported in the NY Times, Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory involved a reduction in force (or RIF) where 30 of 31 employees terminated were over 40 years old. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects employees who are 40 or older from an employer’s actions that have a discriminatory impact. The employees claimed the RIF had a disparate impact on employees over 40, meaning that the employer was not motivated by age bias but its decision still affected those over 40 more than those under 40.
The ADEA provides employers a defense to these claims. An employer can claim that the action it took was motivated by “reasonable factors other than age.” The question before the Court was who had the burden of proof when an employer argues this defense: 1) the employees, who would have to prove that no other reasonable factor motivated the employer; or 2) the employer, who would need to prove that they took into account some reasonable factor or factors?
The Court held, 7-1, that employers who asserted the defense were required to prove it. Justice Souter, who wrote the majority opinion, acknowledged that this burden would be costly to employers. But the law compelled this result and those who disagreed should complain to Congress and not the Court.