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Older workers get a new tool to fight age discrimination

A Supreme Court ruling Wednesday opens the door to lawsuits regarding age bias that may be unintentional.

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Older workers don't necessarily have to prove an employer intentionally favored younger employees in order to sue under a federal age discrimination law.

In an important ruling expanding the scope of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the US Supreme Court on Wednesday said workplace policies that disadvantage older workers - even if not directly caused by age bias - can be a form of illegal age discrimination.

Despite that decision, the justices ruled against a group of 30 members of the Jackson, Miss., police force who had filed an age discrimination suit based on a city pay plan that granted more lucrative benefits to younger workers than older ones.

The high court said that while so-called "disparate impact" claims are permitted under the ADEA, the Jackson police officers had not demonstrated enough of a claim to survive dismissal.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, which was joined in full by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Justice Antonin Scalia provided the key fifth vote on the disparate-impact issue, but said he reached the same result by deferring to a government agency's interpretation that the ADEA permits disparate-impact claims.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented on the disparate-impact issue, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Chief Justice William Rehnquist did not participate.

The 1967 ADEA protects all workers aged 40 and older. Roughly half of America's civilian workforce is over 40, and the proportion of older workers is growing. Wednesday's ruling in Smith v. City of Jackson puts employers on notice that it may not be enough to avoid policies and practices that use age as a proxy in employment decisions.

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