The Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not permit non-employees to bring claims under a disparate impact theory, the Seventh Circuit has ruled. Kleber v. CareFusion Corp. (7th Cir. Jan. 23, 2019). Accordingly, in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, job applicants will not be able to challenge hiring decisions that are neutral, but which disproportionately exclude job applicants over 40.
Divergence of ADEA from Title VII Title VII was enacted in 1964 and the ADEA was enacted in 1967. For approximately 25 years, courts generally treated standards of proof under the ADEA and Title VII as interchangeable. Thus, the Supreme Court’s 1971 Title VII ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. also applied to ADEA claims. The Court found a cause of action in Title VII for non-intentional disparate impact where neutral “practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.”
That began to change for ADEA plaintiffs in 1993, when the Supreme Court, in Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, cast doubt on whether the ADEA permitted any disparate impact claims. Finally, in 2009, the Supreme Court, in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., ruled that unlike Title VII, ADEA disparate treatment plaintiffs face a “but-for” standard to establish discrimination.
Facts and Procedural History After Dale Kleber, then 58, was not hired for a senior in-house position at CareFusion’s law department, he filed an ADEA lawsuit. The job description required applicants to have three to seven years’ legal experience. Kleber had more than seven years’ of relevant experience. One of Kleber’s claims was that CareFusion’s maximum experience requirement had a disparate impact on him, an older attorney. The district court dismissed Kleber’s disparate impact claim. On appeal, a three-judge panel reversed the dismissal. The Seventh Circuit then granted en banc review.
Opinion The eight-judge majority focused on the plain language of Section 4(a)(2) of the ADEA, which makes it unlawful for an employer “to limit, segregate or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s age.” In light of “any individual” being surrounded by “employees,” the Court said the essential meaning of Section 4(a)(2) was that it protected employees only. The Court also drew distinctions between the text of the ADEA and that of Title VII (which does permit applicants to bring disparate impact claims).
There were two separate dissenting opinions among four dissenting judges.
Petition for Supreme Court Review Kleber has recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari in which he has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision. In his petition, Kleber relies extensively on the Supreme Court’s 1971 opinion in Griggs, arguing that the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of the ADEA conflicts with the Griggs Court’s interpretation of “identical” language in Title VII as permitting disparate impact claims by job applicants under that statute. In addition, Kleber also argues in his petition that the Seventh Circuit’s holding thwarts the ADEA’s fundamental purpose of eliminating age-based discrimination in the workplace.
Implications The Seventh Circuit joins the Eleventh Circuit in ruling that the ADEA does not provide disparate impact protections for job applicants. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will accept Kleber’s petition for writ of certiorari and resolve this developing circuit split.
Regardless, ADEA disparate impact plaintiffs already face other challenges in such claims. Unlike race and gender, employers are less likely to collect age information from applicants. Without readily available age information about an employer’s applicant pool, ADEA plaintiffs are forced to use alternative sources of information about the availability of workers over 40.