SCOTUS Opinion: Age Discrimination Need Not Be The But-For Cause To Be Actionable

In Babb v. Wilkie, a clinical pharmacist at a Veterans Affairs medical center alleged that he suffered various adverse personnel actions due to age discrimination. Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, personnel actions affecting individuals 40 and over must be made “free from any discrimination based on age.” The VA offered legitimate reasons for its actions and argued that there was no “but-for” causation. The pharmacist argued that the Act’s language did not require but-for causation. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the pharmacist’s argument, creating a split among the circuits.

The Court, in an 8-1 decision by Justice Alito, reversed and remanded, holding that the plain language of the Act requires that age must be the but-for cause of the discrimination, but not the but-for cause of the personnel action itself. Age need only have played a factor in the decision for it to be actionable. However, but-for causation is still important for determining appropriate relief in a given case. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concurred, stating that the Court’s decision did not foreclose claims alleging discriminatory processes, and might allow damages remedies for costs incurred in engaging in such processes. Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that the default rule applying but-for causation to these kinds of claims was not “clearly displaced” by the Act’s text.

A link to the opinion is here: