U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Legal Standard for Federal Sector Age Discrimination Claims.

On April 6, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion regarding the legal standards governing age discrimination claims for federal sector employees under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA").  Babb v. Wilkie, 589 U.S. __ (2020).  Under the ADEA, private sector employees must prove that age was the "but for" cause of the subject adverse employment action.  However, the ADEA contains certain statutory language specific to federal sector employees that warrants a variation on the legal standard.  The Supreme Court held that the federal-sector provision of the ADEA requires that personnel actions be "untainted by any consideration of age."  However, to obtain damages arising from the end result of an employment decision, a federal sector employee must still satisfy the "but for" causation standard.

The federal-sector provision of the ADEA provides that "personnel actions affecting individuals aged 40 and older shall be made free from any discrimination based on age."  The plain meaning of the statutory language requires that personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age.  However, this does not mean that a plaintiff may obtain all relief under the federal sector provision of the ADEA, including reinstatement, backpay, and compensatory damages, without demonstrating that the personnel action would have been different if age had not been taken into account.  To obtain these types of relief, a federal sector plaintiff must establish that age was the "but for" cause of the challenged employment action.  If age discrimination played a lesser part in the employment decision, other remedies may be appropriate, such as injunctive or other forward-looking relief.