Job Applicants May Not Bring ADEA Disparate-Impact Claims, 11th Circuit Finds

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

October 14, 2016

In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has held in Villarreal v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company that the disparate-impact provision in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) only covers discrimination against employees, not job applicants.

In Villarreal, a job applicant claimed that RJ Reynolds rejected him for employment multiple times because of his age. The company's guidelines instructed recruiters to hire applicants who were two or three years out of college for the position that the claimant, a 49-year-old male, sought.

Disparate-impact discrimination claims allege that certain broad policies or practices (such as those requiring the hiring of applicants who are two or three years out of college for a specific position) have the effect of treating people differently based on their age, even if there was no specific intent to do so.

Although the ADEA bans intentional discrimination against employees and job applicants alike, the appellate court found that the age bias law was never intended to cover applicants who claim they are the victims of disparate-impact discrimination.

Writing for the full 11th Circuit, Circuit Judge William Pryor explained that the ADEA's language refers to individuals who have "status as an employee." Had Congress meant to cover job applicants, the appellate court ruled, it would have said so. As a result, the court concluded that the only reasonable interpretation of the ADEA's plain text is that an applicant may not sue under the law's disparate-impact provision.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other federal appellate courts have taken the position that the ADEA does not preclude these types of hiring discrimination claims. This split sets up the possibility of Supreme Court review.