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Supreme Court Rules in Age Discrimination Cases

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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.”

7 Comments

Age prejudice is a major issue the governments (state and federal) are going to address soon. If retirement ages are raised to say 70, and yet companies are still discriminating against people over 55 or 60, that'll ruin the lives of millions of people. With an aging population, the laws written fifty years ago need to be rewritten to reflect the changes in the culture.

Now we just have to get schools to stop the profoundly institutionalized practice of discriminating against CHILDREN on the basis of age.

On June 25, 2008, Commissioner Scott Gordon of the Family Law section of the Los Angeles Superior Court Central District issued a Court Order baring a grandparent from watching her grandsons because she is "too old."

In the case, mother of the children went to protest the grandmother from watching the twin boys while the father is out of town on a trip. Commissioner Gordon granted the motion based solely on the grandmother's age and the mother saying the grandmother is 88 years old and her stamina is not good.

The grandmother lives an independent life, is healthy, drives, cooks and shops on her own, does her own banking and stock market transactions. She plays soccer with the boys and takes them swimming and to the park without assistance.

This Court Order sets a dangerous percedent. One of the joys for a senior is spending quality time alone with your grandchildren. Another Court might decide that 70 years old is too old and bar another grandparent from his or her grandchildren.

Please demand an explanation from Commissioner Gordon and his superiors on his decision. Write to Scott Gordon at LA Superior Court, Department 88, 11 North Hill Street, Los Angeles CA 90012

This is a very important topic. I recently (June) retired due to pressure by my school district to do so...which I believe to be both age discrimination and motivated by district finances (falling district-wide enrollment, the economics of paying for the defined benefit program for a long-time employee versus the cost of a new teacher, and NCLB).

It devastated my life, both financially, professionally and emotionally. I spent six months in counseling trying to understand what had happened. Unfortunately, by the time I began to really understand the forces at work (as defined by the two amicus brief's referred to in the post, the 180 days to file with EEOC was passed. I also think that it probably would have been an exercise in futility (and costly) to fight it anyway.

But it is important that the 'powers that be' (whoever they are :) ) know that teachers are being hurt. And districts are losing teachers at a time when we (supposedly) have a shortage, especially in Title I schools...the type of school to which I dedicated my teaching career.

I think the laws written 50 years ago should be revised and rewritten. people in governments working up to 70 years old and in the situation where population is increasing very fast will abolish the people. The laws should be rewritten to reflect the changes.

Who regulates discriminatory employment practices by school districts when the union offers no assistance?

This is an especially tricky point for teachers who are not yet tenured, as we are only considered "at will" employees, and therefore have no employment rights. In many California school districts, it is common practice to deny tenure without cause, as no cause need be provided... and despite good performance reviews.

What is particularly pernicious is the district claim that even those denied tenure without cause are deemed ineligible for further employment in that district for the rest of their natural lifetime. When I challenged this in Hayward Unified to the new head of personnel, she initially argued this longtime acknowledged district practice was justified in "state law" (as did the CTA/HEA union local officer), but admitted that it was invalid when confronted with a response I obtained from the CTA legislative analyst, who pointed out the only justification was the Ed Code that mandates tenure be granted to teachers employed for more than 2 continuous consecutive years... which does not at all imply ineligibility for a lifetime after once being denied tenure without any connection to professional performance.

The trouble is... even with the district admitting its longstanding policy was in error, it did not change actual employment practices, nor did the union local respond any further to the issue... and there seems to be absolutely no government regulation of local school districts in regards to discrimination in employment likely connected to standing on the salary scale - i.e., age, "overeducation," and prior experience.

Note on conferral of tenure: what the Ed Code states does not imply that tenure must be conferred upon ANY further employment beyond 2 years, but upon CONTINUOUS, CONSECUTIVE YEARS OF EMPLOYMENT EXCEEDING TWO. This means that after a break from such employment, the probationary process begins anew... which is not to say that it is defensible policy to intentionally manipulate one's employment in order to systemically deny tenure; but neither does it prohibit reengagement of a former teacher under another administrative team which might be more supportive or a better fit in terms of educational philosophy, which is often the 'cause' of denial in the first place when professional reviews provide no cause for termination.

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