Jun 19, 2008

Supreme Court Decides Two Age Discrimination Cases

court_front_med.jpgThe Supreme Court is busy these days, issuing its final decisions before beginning its summer recess at the end of this month. Today, the Court announced several employment law cases, including two age discrimination decisions. (The Court also invalidated a California law that prohibited employers who receive state funds from using that money to promote or discourage union organization; I'll write about that case, Chamber of Commerce v. Brown, in a future post). One of the age discrimination cases, Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, involved a reduction in force at a government contractor that designs naval nuclear reactors. Managers were asked to score employees for performance, flexibility, and critical skills, and those scores were used to determine which employees lost their jobs. All but one of the 31 employees who were let go were at least 40 years old, and most of them sued for age discrimination. Among other things, the employees claimed that the scoring system had a disparate impact: Even though it didn't explicitly discriminate on the basis of age, the employees argued that it disproportionately screened out older workers. Knolls countered that its selection criteria for the RIF were "reasonable factors other than age" (RFOA), one of the exceptions to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and so were legal. The argument in this case was over which party -- employer or employee -- ultimately has to prove the RFOA. The Court found that the RFOA is an affirmative defense, which means that the burden is on the employer to prove that its criteria were reasonable. As the Court admits, this case will make it more difficult for employers to defend against disparate impact claims in ADEA lawsuits. In Kentucky Retirement Systems v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a rare combination of five Justices (Breyer, Roberts, Stevens, Souter, and Thomas) decided that Kentucky's retirement system for employees in hazardous positions (such as firefighters and law enforcement officers) didn't violate the ADEA. This decision is tough to parse, not least because the facts of the case are a bit complicated (and there's math). Here are those facts in a nutshell: Kentucky's system makes employees eligible to retire when (1) they have 20 years of service, or (2) they have five years of service and are at least 55 years old. Employees who suffer a disability are eligible for immediate retirement. If they haven't met one of the two criteria that usually apply, they are credited with enough additional years of service to qualify them for retirement, up to the number of years they have actually served. Retired employees were paid based on a formula that multiplies their years of service (whether actual or credited after a disability) by a factor of their annual pay when they retired. The EEOC sued, claiming that the system discriminated against older workers because it allowed younger employees to receive higher payments than older employees with the same length of service. Because employees who were at least 55 only needed five years of service to retire, some younger employees who became disabled had to be credited with more years of service to be eligible for retirement -- which translates into more money. For example, an employee who suffered a disability at the age of 35 after ten years of service would receive credit for an additional ten years of service; an employee who suffered a disability at the age of 50 after ten years of service would receive credit for only an additional five years of service; and an employee who suffered a disability at the age of 55 after ten years of service would be credited with no extra years. The Court decided in favor of Kentucky and upheld the system. The Court found that Kentucky wasn't motivated by age discrimination, but by a desire to allow those disabled on the job to receive compensation. Because the state's rules were based on pension eligibility rather than on age, the Court found that they should be upheld. The dissent seems to have the better side of the argument on this one. They point out that the state's pension calculations are explicitly based on age. The state may be able to justify its rules using the equal cost defense, which allows employers to reduce certain benefits to older workers as long as it spends an equal amount on benefits for older and younger workers. But to say, as the majority opinion here does, that the state's system is not age-based seems incorrect. And even if the state has good intentions, as appears to be the case, it doesn't have to disadvantage older workers to achieve its goal of compensating employees who suffer disabilities.

For a comprehensive guide to the ADEA and other federal laws prohibiting discrimination, see The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo (Nolo).

Lisa Guerin