On Law

Jewish World Review April 22, 2003 /20 Nissan, 5763

Court looks at 'reverse' age bias

By Michael Kirkland

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | (UPI) The Supreme Court Monday agreed to decide whether federal age discrimination law also bans more favorable treatment for older employees.

The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act explicitly prohibits discrimination against workers 40 and older, and has been used in a number of lawsuits against employers.

But does it also ban "reverse" discrimination -- giving better treatment to those over 40 or older, and less favorable treatment to younger workers?

If the Supreme Court eventually says it does, it could turn the case law on its head and spawn a new generation of lawsuits against employers.

The Toledo, Ohio, dispute involves General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. A group of plaintiffs who were at least 40 but not yet 50 years old in 1997 filed suit against General Dynamics in federal court. The company operates plants in Lima, Ohio, and Scranton, Pa., at which employees are represented by the United Auto Workers.

General Dynamics and the UAW negotiated two collective bargaining agreements. One in force till mid-1997 provided full health benefits to all employees who retired with 30 years seniority.

A new collective bargaining agreement in early 1997 instead offered retiree health benefits only to those workers who had turned 50 as of July 1 that year.

The plaintiffs in the federal suit said that amounted to age discrimination.

A federal judge granted the company's motion to dismiss, agreeing that reverse discrimination is not covered by the ADEA.

However, a divided appeals court panel reversed. The "plain language" of the act bans any employment decision based on age, as long as the decision affects those over 40, good or ill.

In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, General Dynamics told the justices that the appeals court verdict conflicts "with virtually every other court to consider the question ... Moreover, the decision ... is clearly wrong, and works in polar opposition to Congress's purpose in adopting the ADEA. The act was expressly intended to combat discrimination against 'older workers'... "

In unsuccessfully asking the Supreme Court not to hear the case, the original plaintiffs said the appeals court decision was "well-reasoned" and based on the "plain language" of the statute.

"Recision of health insurance benefits after retirement by an employer to employees age 40-49 solely on the basis of age constitutes age discrimination," the plaintiffs said in their brief.

Though not yet scheduled, the Supreme Court should hear the case next fall or winter.


(No. 02-1080, General Dynamics vs. Cline et al.)

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Michael Kirkland is UPI's senior legal affairs correspondent. He has covered the Supreme Court, and other parts of the legal community, with varying degrees of enthusiasm since 1993. Comment by clicking here.


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