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Supreme Court Places Greater Burden on Employers Defending Age Claims: Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory

Posted in Discrimination

In Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, an employer used a "matrix" method to carry out a reduction in force. The employer’s method ranked its employees based on objective factors (i.e. performance and years of service) and subjective factors (i.e. flexibility and criticality). The employer then conducted a disparate impact analysis for the lowest scoring employees for several protected categories. However, no analysis was done for the employees’ ages. 30 of the 31 workers laid off were over the age of 40.
28 of the laid off employees filed suit against the employer under the ADEA. The jury awarded the employees $6 million and the Second Circuit affirmed.
In an earlier case, Smith v. City of Jackson, the Supreme Court held that the ADEA permits "disparate impact" claims where an employment practice adversely harms older workers even without intent to do so. In Smith, the Court noted that the "reasonable factors other than age" provision in the ADEA was an important safeguard against employer liability, but it did not decide who had the burden of persuasion on that issue.
The Supreme Court agreed to decide one simple question in the Meacham case: does the employee or the employer have the burden of persuasion regarding the "reasonable factors other than age" issue? The Supreme Court held that the employee must establish the disparate impact, and the employer must prove that any disparate impact was based on reasonable factors other than age.