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High Court Broadens Reach of Age-Bias Law

The U.S. Supreme Court last week broadened the protections of a federal law that bars discrimination based on age.

In a unanimous ruling in O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp. (Case No. 95-354), the court said older workers who lose their jobs can sue for age discrimination even if they are replaced by someone 40 or older, which is the age group protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

School districts have faced a small but growing number of lawsuits under the law, mostly involving cases where a younger teacher is hired instead of older applicants because of the salary savings involved in choosing someone with less experience.

The case decided last week was brought by a manager for a vending-machine company who was 56 years old in 1990 when he was replaced by a 40-year-old. The man's boss had allegedly said he was too old for his type of work.

A federal district court dismissed his suit. A federal appeals court said the man met most of the requirements for an age-discrimination suit to get a full court hearing except that his replacement was also in the class of persons protected by the federal law.

While only those in the protected class of workers 40 and older can bring suits under the law, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the high court majority, said the law does not limit protection from discrimination based on age to cases where only the plaintiff is in the protected class.

"The fact that a replacement is substantially younger than the plaintiff is a far more reliable indicator of age discrimination," he said.

Justice Scalia added that no inference of age discrimination could be drawn if one worker was replaced by another who was "insignificantly younger." He did not define what difference in age should be considered significant.

Berkeley Cleared

The Department of Education's office for civil rights has found that the University of California at Berkeley does not discriminate against applicants to the undergraduate college of letters and science.

John E. Palomino, the OCR's regional director for the West Coast, said in a March 1 letter that the college's admissions policies did not set illegal quotas for members of particular ethnic groups.

The OCR received a complaint from a white student about the college's policy in 1989. But the university was in the process of changing its admissions system, and the agency held off on its investigation until 1993 and focused on admissions data from that year.

Although Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin, Mr. Palomino said that the university's use of race as one of numerous factors in its admissions policy is permitted.

The law allows colleges "to take voluntary affirmative action, even in the absence of past discrimination, in response to conditions that have limited the participation of students of a particular race or national origin," Mr. Palomino said in the letter.

In investigating a spate of complaints about admissions at California universities in recent years, many brought on behalf of Asian-American students, the OCR has generally upheld the institutions' affirmative-action policies. But in 1992, under an agreement with the OCR, Berkeley's law school dropped the practice of placing applicants from different racial groups on separate lists where they competed only against each other.

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