Maine Law Court charts Different Course for Age Discrimination

Friday, March 24, 2017

It is not often that the Law Court interprets the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) differently from its federal counterparts.  In a recent decision, though, the Law Court did exactly that – it held that the standard for evaluating claims of disparate impact age discrimination under the MHRA is different from the standard under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Scamman v. Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc.

Unlike disparate treatment claims, which are based on an employer’s alleged intentional discrimination against an individual based on a protected status, disparate impact claims arise where an employee alleges that he or she is a member of a protected class that is disproportionately affected by a practice of the employer.  In  Scamman v. Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc., several employees filed a charge of discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging that they were terminated by Shaw’s as part of a reduction in force that disproportionately affected older employees.  

Shaw’s explained the reduction in force was necessitated by cost-cutting business imperatives.  The investigator analyzed the employees’ claim using a burden-shifting framework that federal courts apply to disparate impact claims under Title VII and which requires an employer to produce evidence that its practice is justified by “business necessity.”  Ultimately, the Commission determined that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Shaw’s discriminated against the employees based on a disparate impact theory, and the Commission voted unanimously to adopt the investigator’s analysis and recommendation. The employees then sued in Superior Court, but Shaw’s removed the case to the U.S. District Court.  

Once there, Shaw’s raised a threshold issue: is the “business necessity” framework the correct standard to apply to disparate impact age discrimination claims under the MHRA, or does the “reasonable factor other than age” (RFOA) standard from the ADEA apply instead?  This was a threshold issue because the parties agreed that if the RFOA standard applied, Shaw’s would be entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Unlike the “business necessity” framework, the RFOA standard does not inquire into whether an employer’s practice constitutes a business necessity; rather, once an employee shows evidence of a policy or practice with a disparate impact, an employer simply must show that the challenged practice is based on a reasonable factor other than age.  The result is that the scope of disparate impact liability is narrower under the ADEA than it is under Title VII. 

Because there was no controlling precedent, the District Court certified to the Law Court the question of which standard applies to disparate impact age discrimination claims under the MHRA.  After reviewing the text of the MHRA and finding it unclear, the Law Court deferred to the Commission’s interpretation of the statute and its conclusion that the “business necessity” standard is the applicable standard.  The Law Court found that this was a reasonable interpretation based on the legislative history of the MHRA and the fact that, despite being amended multiple times, the statute has never contained an RFOA provision like the ADEA.  And, while the Law Court acknowledged that it often looks to federal law to interpret the MHRA, it observed that it has done so only when the “federal and state laws are substantially identical,” which the Law Court found was not the case here given the absence of any RFOA provision in the MHRA.

Take home for Employers

Where policies are challenged under the MHRA on the grounds that they disproportionately affect older workers, it is now clear that employers seeking to justify those policies will not be able to do so simply by showing that the impact is based a reasonable factor other than age.  What remains to be seen is the effect that this decision may have on other potential differences between the MHRA and the ADEA, such as the applicable standard for causation – “mixed-motive” or “but-for” – in cases of intentional age discrimination.  The take-home for employers is that claims for disparate impact age discrimination under the MHRA will now be evaluated using a burden-shifting “business necessity” framework, not the more generous “reasonable factor other than age” standard under the ADEA. Stay tuned.