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Justices Dismiss Age-Bias Case Watched by School Groups

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a case about age-discrimination claims by public employees that was being watched closely by groups representing teachers and school boards.

The one-sentence decision to dismiss the appeal in Madigan v. Levin (Case No. 12-872) as "improvidently granted" was not a surprise after oral arguments last week. 

The question in the case is whether public employees may bring age-discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause rather than the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The case before the justices involves an age-bias allegation by an assistant state attorney general of Illinois who lost his job at age 61 and was replaced by someone in her 30s. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled last year that even though the ADEA provides a comprehensive remedial structure, Congress did not intend the statute to bar plaintiffs from relying on so-called Section 1983 of the United States Code to bring age-bias claims under the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

At the Oct. 7 oral arguments, several justices expressed concern that lower courts in the case had not adequately considered whether the assistant attorney general, who was not covered by the ADEA because he was a high-level appointee, might fall under a more obscure federal statute known as the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991, and what that might mean for his equal-protection claim.

"Sometime on occasion we dismiss a case as improvidently granted, which is not a particularly desirable thing to do," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said as last week's arguments stumbled over various procedural questions. "But how could we avoid doing that here?"

The case had attracted competing friend-of-the-court briefs from education groups. The National School Boards Association argued in its brief that the ADEA provides all the protection that workers need from age bias. The K-12 teaching workforce "is aging rapidly," and school districts often must make education-related work decisions that carry "age-related implications," the NSBA said.

The National Education Association argued in its brief that the ADEA was aimed at protecting a distinct age class of older workers with specific remedies, while Congress did not mean to preclude a broader class of workers from also being able to turn to the equal-protection clause for age-discrimination claims.

Those arguments on both sides will go on the shelf until the high court accepts a new case that raises the same issue.

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