WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal workers may be able to win some relief for age discrimination even if it was not the sole reason for action taken against them.
The case, involving a clinical pharmacist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, won attention after Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether the phrase "OK, boomer" would qualify as age discrimination.
In an 8-1 decision, Associate Justice Samuel Alito said a 1967 federal law "demands that personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age." That means Noris Babb is eligible for some form of remedy because of what she claimed was a hostile work environment.
But the court ruled that overturning an employer's ultimate action and winning complete relief still requires proof that age was the key factor.
"Plaintiffs who demonstrate only that they were subjected to unequal consideration cannot obtain reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, or other forms of relief related to the end result of an employment decision," Alito wrote.
Babb, a clinical pharmacist at the VA, sued the department over a series of decisions that affected her job duties, pay and opportunities for promotions.
During oral argument, Roberts asked Babb's lawyer whether a younger hiring manager saying "OK, boomer" would be an actionable offense. His question drew laughter in the courtroom.
"If the decision-makers are sitting around the table and they say, 'we've got Candidate A who's 35' and 'we've got Candidate B who's 55 and is a boomer' and is probably tired and, you know, doesn't have a lot of computer skills, I think that absolutely would be actionable," attorney Roman Martinez responded.
"OK, boomer" has become a biting slogan younger generations have used on platforms like TikTok and Twitter to express resentment toward older people, invoking the name of the baby boom generation.
The case revolved around whether federal workers can claim age bias under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas dissented because, he said, the decision allows workers to claim age discrimination even if they ultimately are hired or promoted.
Contributing: Savannah Behrmann
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'OK, boomer!' Supreme Court says aging federal workers have legal sway