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| A ruling from the Supreme Court Monday may make it easier for federal workers age 40 and older to win age discrimination lawsuits. The 8-1 decision is a victory for older adults who have seen their legal protections from bias erode over the past 10 years, but federal workers still may have to meet a strict standard to get some types of relief, such as back pay.
Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2009, older workers who sue for discrimination have had to prove that their age was the “but-for” cause, a legal term meaning that age was the only reason for the employer’s decision, not just one of perhaps several motivating factors. Previously, courts had held that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) only required workers to show that their age played some role in their employer’s considerations.
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The Supreme Court’s ruling this week says the section of the ADEA that covers federal workers makes it clear that this group is protected from any level of workplace discrimination.
“That Congress would want to hold the federal government to a higher standard than state and private employers is not unusual,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.
The case, Babb v. Wilkie, could affect a sizable share of the nation's older workers. The federal government is the largest employer in the United States, with roughly 3 million employees nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Nearly 70 percent of the government's full-time workers are age 40 and older, which means they are covered by the federal ADEA.