Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory

PETITIONER: Clifford B. Meacham et al.
RESPONDENT: Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, aka KAPL, Inc., et al.
LOCATION: Earthquake Park

DOCKET NO.: 06-1505
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 554 US 84 (2008)
GRANTED: Jan 18, 2008
ARGUED: Apr 23, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 19, 2008

ADVOCATES:
Daryl Joseffer -
Kevin K. Russell -
Seth P. Waxman -

Facts of the case

When the New York-based federal research laboratory Knolls Atomic Power Lab instituted a downsizing program, it asked supervisors to rank employees based on three factors: performance, flexibility, and the criticality of their skills, and then to add points for years of service in order to determine who would be dismissed. Of the thirty-one employees who were let go, all but one were over the age of forty. Twenty-six of these dismissed employees filed suit against Knolls for age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). A jury found for the employees and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.

However the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment, relying on its 2005 decision in Smith v. City of Jackson to hold that "an employer is not liable under the ADEA so long as the challenged employment action, in relying on specific non-age factors, constitutes a reasonable means to the employer's legitimate goals." On remand, the Second Circuit vacated its previous decision and held that the employees had failed to carry their burden of proving the evaluation system unreasonable. In seeking Supreme Court review, the employees argued that it should be Knolls, not them, who must prove the reasonableness of an action that would otherwise be prohibited.

Question

Under the Supreme Court's decision in Smith v. City of Jackson, must the employer or the employee prove the reasonableness of adverse employment decisions occurring as part of a claim for age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act?

Media for Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 2008 in Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 19, 2008 in Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Souter has our opinion this morning in case 06-1505, Meacham versus Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari of the Second Circuit.

The Nation's fleet of nuclear-powered submarines is maintained in part by the government's private contractors.

One such contractor, Knolls, the respondent here, runs a government laboratory.

As the Cold War wound down in the 1990s, the Government ordered Knolls to cut its workforce.

Knolls laid off 31 salaried employees of whom 30 were at least 40 years old, old enough to be covered by the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the ADEA which was also the subject of Justice Breyer's Kentucky opinion a moment ago.

The petitioners including Clifford Meacham were among those workers laid off.

They sued under the ADEA and won a jury verdict on their claim that Knolls' lay off procedures had a disparate impact that is a discriminatory effect on older workers.

But the Second Circuit reversed and ruled in favor of Knolls saying that Meacham and the other plaintiffs had not satisfied the burden of persuasion in rebutting the defense, that the criteria Knolls used in its lay off decisions were reasonable ones.

That defense is laid out in the Section 4 (f) (1) of the ADEA which says that -- and I am quoting, “It shall not be unlawful for an employer to take any action otherwise prohibited by the Act, where the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age.”

This is referred to as the RFOA defense.

There is no dispute that the employer bears the burden of producing evidence to raise this defense.

We granted certiorari to answer only the question whether the employer also bears the burden of persuading the fact finder on the merits of the defense, or whether as the Court of Appeals assumed that task falls to the employee.

In an opinion filed with the clerk of court today, we vacate and remand.

We hold that an employer looking to take advantage of the RFOA exemption bears not only the burden of production, but also the burden of persuasion on that defense.

Most lawyers would find this to be no surprise.

In the text of the statute, the RFOA clause sits in a provision not only separate from the ones that create liability, but one that also refers to the conduct that exempts as actions otherwise prohibited by the Act.

A familiar principle in reading statutes tells us in the words of Justice Holmes, that “when a proviso carves an exception out of the body of a statute, those who set up the exception must prove it.”

This longstanding convention is a part of the backdrop against which the Congress writes its laws and so we follow it, too, unless we see clear signs that Congress meant the opposite.

In fact, our past cases have already recognized that the clause right next to the RFOA clause creates an affirmative defense with the burden of persuasion falling on the employer, and in this case we have been given no good reason to treat the RFOA clause any differently.

In going the other way, the Court of Appeals took its queue from the employee's burden of persuasion on the question of whether an employer's practice is a business necessity, a tests the courts had applied under Title VII before it was amended in 1991.

But the business necessity test has no use in ADEA disparate impact cases where it would be largely redundant and in some ways incompatible with the statutory RFOA defense.

And because our prior cases about the business necessity test have nothing to do with statutory defenses either in the old Title VII or -- or in the ADEA, they do not disturb our natural reading of the RFOA clause as creating an affirmative defense.

For these reasons, we vacate the Second Circuit's opinion and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Justice Breyer took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.