Supreme Court Rules in Age Discrimination Cases

By Mark Walsh — June 19, 2008 3 min read
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In a victory for employees, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that employers bear the burden of persuasion in court in certain cases in which job actions have a disparate impact on older workers.

Meanwhile, in another decision under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the court ruled against a Kentucky worker by holding that certain disparities in that state’s public-employee retirement system do not violate the federal law.

Both cases were being watched by education groups.

In Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (Case No. 06-1505), the justices ruled 7-1 that an employer defending a disparate-impact claim under the ADEA bears the legal burden of proving a defense that the disputed job actions were based on “reasonable factors other than age.”

The case involved a group of workers laid off from a federally contracted research facility, who alleged an illegal disparate impact because 30 of 31 workers slated for the layoff were over 40 years old, which is the age when employees first come under the protection of the ADEA.

In his majority opinion, Justice David H. Souter said the text of the ADEA and related case law suggest that the party that wishes to benefit from the “reasonable factors other than age” defense--that is, the employer--should be the one that bears the legal burden of proving the defense. The decision threw out a contrary ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City.

Justice Clarence Thomas was a partial dissenter, saying he would have ruled for the employer in this case. Justice Stephen G. Breyer didn’t participate in the case.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on the side of the employer in the case, the NSBA noted that school districts were adopting flexible policies such as early-retirement programs, district reorganizations involving the redistribution of personnel, and other actions that could have a disparate impact on their older workers.

Kentucky Retirement Case

In Kentucky Retirement Systems v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 06-1037), the justices ruled 5-4 that the state’s retirement system does not discriminate based on age against certain workers who become disabled after becoming eligible for retirement.

The case arose over differences in the way the Kentucky retirement system compensates workers who retire for reasons of disability and those who retire because they have served the requisite length of time. In that state, public-sector workers can retire after 20 years of service or at age 55 with five years of employment.

A sheriff’s department employee who was 61 when he sought disability retirement was told he could only retire under the state’s regular retirement plan, which the employee contended resulted in a lesser benefit level. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the state on behalf of the worker, arguing that Kentucky’s plan provides lesser benefits to certain older workers who must stop working because of disability, and thus discriminates against them based on age. (I blogged about oral arguments in the case here.)

But in his opinion for the court, Justice Breyer said the disparities in Kentucky’s system hinged more on a beneficiary’s pension status than his age.

“Kentucky’s system does not rely on any of the sorts of stereotypical assumptions that the ADEA sought to eradicate,” Justice Breyer said. “It does not rest on any stereotype about the work capacity of ‘older’ workers relative to ‘younger’ workers.”

In an unusual lineup, Justice Breyer’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens, Souter, and Thomas. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Groups such as the NSBA and the National Council on Teacher Retirement had filed friend-of-the-court briefs expressing concern about the possible effects of the case on public-employee retirement plans, which cover teachers and other school workers.

The NSBA, based in Alexandria, Va., expressed worry in its brief about the effect of the case on school districts’ early-retirement-incentive plans for teachers.

The teacher-retirement council, a Sacramento, Calif.-based group representing 77 state and local teacher-pension plans, joined a brief on Kentucky’s side that had argued the EEOC’s position could lead to instability for public-retirement funds and would require changes to plans in “virtually every state.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.