Supreme Court Won’t Weigh in on Age Discrimination in Hiring Practices

Amid the shockwaves from the Supreme Court yesterday — in particular the decision to allow parts of President Trump’s travel ban to go into effect until the court hears arguments this fall — came a decision that got notably less attention. The court has decided not to hear a case involving age-discrimination, allowing a lower court ruling to stand. From a ProPublica article in March:

For the past half century, federal law has banned employers from discriminating against people based on their age. But since the early 1990s, corporate lawyers and conservative judges have sought to shrink what counts as discrimination, making it substantially harder to prove age bias. […]

The case involves an Atlanta man named Richard Villarreal, who applied online for a sales manager job with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 2007 and heard nothing. When he applied in subsequent years, he had no better luck.

What Villarreal, who was 49 at the time of his first application, didn’t know was that Reynolds had retained a subcontractor to review the applications, supplying guidelines that led reviewers to discard his resume and those of almost 20,000 other older applicants. Of the roughly 1,000 sales managers the tobacco company hired between 2007 and 2010, when Villarreal was applying, fewer than a score were over the age of 40. After a whistleblower emerged in 2010, Villarreal sued.

The significance of the case is two-fold. It highlights the hurdles for job seekers as hiring has increasingly moved online, where it’s easier for companies to reject whole classes of applicants and harder for people to keep track of their bids for work. And it illustrates how age discrimination protections have been progressively narrowed. The tobacco company’s defense challenges decades of precedent for how the law has been interpreted and enforced.

Now that the Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruling will apply, meaning that, in areas covered by that court, the 50-year-old Age Discrimination in Employment Act only applies to people who already have jobs, and not those who are seeking employment.

From ProPublica yesterday:

The Supreme Court also leaves in place the circuit majority’s view that, for unsuccessful job applicants to stand any chance of making a case, they must “diligently” pursue why they weren’t offered a position, even if they weren’t aware at the time that age discrimination was involved.

Although the lower-court ruling only holds formal legal sway in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, which are covered by the 11th Circuit, it already is being cited as precedent in cases across the country. […]

The lower-court decision runs counter to the policies of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers the nation’s employment discrimination laws and has consistently said the age discrimination law applies to both employees and applicants.

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain via flickr (CC-BY-NC)

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