Teaching Profession

Court’s Term Marked by Rulings In Age-Discrimination Disputes

By Mark Walsh — July 09, 2008 4 min read
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School groups following two age-discrimination cases in the U.S. Supreme Court got a split decision at the end of the court’s term.

In a victory for employees, the justices ruled 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 that welcomed the result in the second case, but had sought a different outcome in the first one.

BRIC ARCHIVE

In that decision, 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 burden of proving a defense that the disputed job actions were based on “reasonable factors other than age,” as the statute puts it.

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, the age at which 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 seeking to benefit from the “reasonable factors other than age” defense—that is, the employer—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.

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In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on the side of the employer, the National School Boards Association 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 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 gaining eligibility 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.

Education and the Court: The 2007-08 Term

In contrast to the previous term, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided five cases directly involving school districts, the term that ended June 26 featured just one, and that case resulted in a deadlock that did not set a precedent. Meanwhile, the justices decided a number of employment cases that were of interest to school groups.

Special Education
New York City Board of Education v. Tom F. (Case No. 06-637)
The lone education case heard during the term ended quickly, as the justices divided equally over an appeal from the New York City school system about paying for private school placements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The 4-4 split meant that the justices affirmed a ruling by a federal appeals court that the IDEA does not require children to have attended public schools before their parents may seek reimbursement for a so-called unilateral private school placement—a decision to enroll a child in private school without the assent of public school authorities. The tie vote, which was made possible by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s recusal from the case, means the case does not establish a nationwide precedent.

Equal-Protection Clause
Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture (No. 07-474)
The justices sided with public employers in a decision that restricts workers from suing over alleged job discrimination based on arbitrary or vindictive reasons aimed just at them. The issue was whether a public employee may press a federal lawsuit under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause when an adverse job action is based on subjective reasons that don’t otherwise violate laws barring discrimination based on race, sex, or other protected classes. Such a suit is called a “class of one” claim. The court ruled 6-3 against such claims, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. saying that such claims were a poor fit for the public-employment context.

Race Discrimination
CBOCS West v. Humphries (No. 06-1431)
The court ruled 7-2 that a Reconstruction-era federal civil rights law protects workers against retaliatory conduct. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said for the majority that the law commonly known as Section 1981, which derives from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, encompasses retaliation even though that word isn’t mentioned in the statute. Section 1981 bars race discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts, which include employment relationships.

Age Discrimination
Kentucky Retirement Systems v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 06-1037)
The court ruled 5-4 that Kentucky’s retirement system does not discriminate based on age against certain workers who become disabled after they have reached eligibility for retirement. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had sued the state, arguing that Kentucky’s plan provides lesser benefits to certain older workers who must stop working because of disability, and thus discriminated against them based on age in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA. But in his opinion for the court, Justice Breyer said the disparities in the state’s system hinged more on a beneficiary’s pension status than his age.

Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (No. 06-1505)
The justices ruled 7-1 that an employer defending a disparate-impact claim under the ADEA bears the burden of proving a defense that the disputed job actions were based on factors other than age. Justice David H. Souter said for the court that the text of the ADEA and related case law suggest that the party seeking to benefit from the law’s “reasonable factors other than age” defense—that is, the employer—should be the one that bears the burden of proving the defense.

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 EEOC 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.

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.”

The majority 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 including 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.”

Guns and Schools

The Supreme Court term that ended June 26 was relatively light on cases of interest to educators. (See box on right.)

On that final day, the justices issued their dramatic ruling that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals a right to own a gun for self-defense. The ruling was dismaying to some educators and school officials, including leaders of the Chicago school system, which had joined a friend-of-the-court brief urging a narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment.

In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia stressed that the court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (No. 07-290) should not be taken as casting doubt on prohibitions against gun possession in “sensitive places” such as schools.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Court’s Term Marked by Rulings In Age-Discrimination Disputes

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