Judicial Notebook

In 1967, Congress passed the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) making it "unlawful for an employer...to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age." However, not until June 2000 did the Supreme Court approve the framework for testing whether a plaintiff's claim crosses the line of intentional discrimination prohibited in this statute.

In Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc., 120 S.Ct. 2097 (2000), Roger Reeves, age 57, brought suit after he was fired as a production line supervisor at Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. Cross-examination at trial discredited Powe Chestnut (Reeves' boss), who claimed that Reeves had inaccurately recorded attendance and hours at work for his supervisees. The plaintiff's witnesses also impeached Chestnut's testimony that Reeves had intentionally falsified employee records. In his case, the plaintiff argued that Chesnut had made some negative age-based comments toward Reeves and that Chestnut treated Reeves more harshly than the younger employees at the company. The trial court found for Reeves and held the company liable for violation of the ADEA.

A test for age discrimination

Upon appeal from the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court affirmed that the appropriate framework for testing intentional age discrimination claims is the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973) test for race and gender disparate treatment cases. First, the plaintiff must present a prima facie case of discrimination, one that if unrequited by the facts would lead to a finding in favor of the plaintiff. Reeves satisfied this burden by claiming he was fired because he was older than 40, qualified for the supervisory position, and that Sanderson Plumbing hired a younger worker to replace Reeves.

Next, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to show that the plaintiff was released for a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason (e.g., because Reeves failed to maintain adequate employee records). The burden then shifts one more time to the plaintiff to demonstrate by the preponderance of the evidence that, "the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination," Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-253 (1981). While Reeves presented evidence at trial that refuted the defendant's legitimate reason, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury's finding in favor of the plaintiff because Reeves did not "present sufficient evidence that his age motivated [respondent's] employment decision."

In Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc., 197 F.3d 688, 693-694 (5th Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court reviewed the McDonnell framework and held that while independent evidence showing that the employer acted with the intent to discriminate may strengthen an age discrimination case, it is not required for a plaintiff to prevail. "Thus, a plaintiff's prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find the employer's asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the employer unlawfully discriminated," the Court said.

Implications for psychology

The Court reasoned that discrediting legitimate explanation as pretext constitutes circumstantial evidence probative of intentional discrimination. Such evidence may be very persuasive because it not only draws the defendant's honesty into question, but it may leave the jury with intentional discrimination as the most plausible explanation for the defendant's actions. Justice O'Connor, writing a unanimous decision, assumes that jurors accept intentional discrimination as a default only after alternative explanations are eliminated. Social and industrial organizational psychologists can and should test this psychological hypothesis because it has important implications for how age discrimination cases will be brought and decided. After Reeves, many cases may turn solely on the plaintiff's ability to show that the defendant's legitimate explanation is pretext.

The Reeves case is an invitation to study the reasoning process that jurors and juries use to test prima facie discrimination claims against legitimate alternative explanations. Justice O'Connor's opinion favors a discounting model; however, alternative approaches include story telling models, online judgment processes with a critical liability cutoff or attitude-persuasion models. Empirical study of judgments in these types of cases has important theoretical, policy and consulting implications.