An ADEA-protected employee smiling in the office


Unpacking the age discrimination in employment act

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a federal law that prohibits U.S. employers from discriminating against employees based on age. In particular, it provides protections to people over the age of 40.

However, an older employee can't simply claim ADEA violations just because they were let go from a job position or passed over for employment. They have to be able to prove that age discrimination was the reason for the termination or refusal to hire and the initial burden of evidence is on them.

But proving a case is often easier said than done. In fact, there are several basic requirements of what an employee must be able to show to prove the various types of ADEA claims.

What does an age discrimination claim look like?

Like many forms of discrimination, it can sometimes be difficult for an employee to prove age discrimination is occurring in the workplace, or that it's the reason behind an employer's action.

For example, if a 50-year-old employee loses their job after a conflict with their boss, they can't simply claim they're being targeted for their age. However, if that employee or a witness can provide clear evidence indicating the employer is biased against their age and treating them differently than other employees because of it, the employee may have a discrimination claim under ADEA.

But, what would this claim look like? Well, for starters, the employee would need to make a "prima facie" case that they are the victim of age discrimination. This is just a fancy way of saying they can provide enough evidence that, unless rebutted, would be sufficient to prove their case. While the specific elements for such a claim can vary from place to place, they typically look something like this:

  • The employee is at least 40 years old
  • The employee's work is good enough to meet their employer's legitimate expectations (that is, the employee is qualified for the position)
  • The employer took an adverse action against the employee (such as, the employee was fired)
  • The employer's choice to fire the employee was because of the employee's age

If the employee can prove these elements, then the burden shifts to the employer, who then has the opportunity to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing the employee. For example, the employer may allege that they fired the employee because the employee was stealing money from the company, lying on timesheets, or countless other reasons other than age.

And if the employer can provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating an employee's employment, the burden then shifts again back to the employee to prove that the reason offered was not the true reason, but merely a pretext for age discrimination.

In addition to providing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for their actions, it's worth noting another possible defense an employer may have to an employee's ADEA claim: the "bona fide occupational qualification," or BFOQ defense.

Essentially, the BFOQ defense revolves around the idea that an employee's age is a qualification that is reasonably necessary for normal operation of the employer's business. In most cases, it involves an employer-mandated age limitation, which is most commonly enforced when necessary for safety reasons, such as mandatory retirement ages for pilots.

Hostile work environment claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

Hostile work environment claims under the ADEA are also quite common. And while these claims can also vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, they often require an employee to be able to provide enough evidence to show, among other things, the following:

  • The employee was subjected to age-related — discriminatory — verbal or physical conduct while at work
  • The conduct was unwelcomed by the employee
  • The conduct was severe and pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment

Some examples of this offensive conduct may include:

  • Mocking, insulting, or ridiculing a person because of their age
  • Making jokes at the person's expense
  • Generating or perpetuating stereotypes about a person's age
  • Calling attention to limitations or abilities

Courts will often look at all the circumstances when assessing whether an employee is the victim of a hostile work environment, which means they may examine:

  • The frequency of the age-related discriminatory/harassing conduct
  • The severity of the conduct
  • Whether the conduct is threatening or humiliating
  • Whether the conduct interferes with the employee's work

As you can see, the more severe and frequent the offensive conduct, the more likely the employee will have a claim against their employer for a hostile work environment.

Want even more information on age discrimination laws?

The information above barely scratches the surface of what employers and employees need to know about age discrimination laws in the workplace. Not only are there many other important nuances and claims associated with the ADEA, but several states have their own laws that protect employees from age discrimination. For instance, New York has outlawed age discrimination against anyone older than 18.

If you want to make sure you have the most up-to-date information on potentially relevant age discrimination laws and other employment-related legal issues, try Practical Law for free today. Stay “in the know” and have expert guidance instantly at your fingertips.

The content appearing on this website is not intended as, and shall not be relied upon as, legal advice. It is general in nature and may not reflect all recent legal developments. Thomson Reuters is not a law firm and an attorney-client relationship is not formed through your use of this website. You should consult with qualified legal counsel before acting on any content found on this website.

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