Justices Sympathetic to Kentucky Retirement Plans
In a case being watched by education groups, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on whether certain disparities in Kentucky's public-employee retirement system violate a federal age-discrimination law.
By the end of the hourlong argument, it seemed clear that a majority of the justices disagreed with the position of the Bush administration, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that Kentucky's system violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
The case arose because of the different ways the retirement system handles workers who retire for disability reasons and those who retire because they have served the requisite length of time, which in Kentucky is 20 years of service or at age 55 with five years of employment.
An employee of the Jefferson County, Ky., sheriff's department who was 61 years old when he sought disability retirement was told he could only retire under the regular retirement plan. The employee sued with the aid of the EEOC, which argued that Kentucky's plan provided lesser benefits to certain older workers who sought to retire on disability, and thus discriminated against them based on age.
"In calculating benefits, Kentucky uses age an eligibility factor in a way that disadvantages older employees," Malcolm L. Stewart, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, told the court in Kentucky Retirement Systems v. EEOC (Case No. 06-1037).
Robert D. Klausner, a lawyer representing the state and its retirement plans, said, "Age is not a bad word. All retirement plans necessarily make distinctions based on age."
The National School Boards Assocation, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Kentucky's side, argues that some school districts' early-retirement incentive plans have run into objections from the EEOC on age-discrimination grounds.
"The ADEA prohibits only arbitrary age discrimination," the NSBA's brief says.
During the oral arguments, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he saw no indications that Kentucky had based its retirement systems on invidious age-based stereotypes.
"We're talking about age, which is not an immutable characteristic," Breyer said. "Everybody gets older."