Federal workers in California and around the country who are concerned about age discrimination in the workplace will likely welcome a U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down on April 6. In a case involving a woman who is employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs as a clinical pharmacist, the justices voted 8-1 to extend protections against age discrimination for government employees. The ruling paves the way for workers to pursue discrimination claims even if age discrimination was not the only reason for an adverse employment action being taken against them.
The pharmacist took legal action because she believed that a series of actions taken by the VA that affected her duties, compensation and career prospects were motivated by ageism. She claimed in her lawsuit that these decisions created a hostile work environment. The Supreme Court chose to hear arguments in the case to clear up ambiguity over whether or not the Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects federal workers.
While the vote was overwhelming, federal employees were not handed a complete victory. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion that government workers would still not be entitled to complete relief under the provisions of the ADEA unless they can establish that age discrimination was the primary motivation for an adverse employment action. The only dissenting vote was cast by Justice Clarence Thomas who felt that the decision could encourage workers who were ultimately promoted or hired to pursue age discrimination claims.
This case reveals that federal laws protecting workers that were passed decades ago may still be subject to interpretation. This can leave employees who have been treated poorly unsure of their legal options. Attorneys with experience in employment discrimination cases could seek to clear up this confusion by explaining the scope of these laws as well as their limitations.