SCOTUS has ruled 5-3 that workers who sue their employers for age discrimination need not prove that the discrimination was intentional. The case is AZEL P. SMITH, et al., PETITIONERS v. CITY OF JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI, et al..  Full text of the ruling is here.  
This is an interesting ruling in that it opens the door to age discrimination suits that previously would have been denied. Normally it is very difficult to prove age discrimination without showing deliberate intent (the smoking gun).  

In short, the City of Jackson introduced a pay plan in 1998 intended to attract prospective police officers. The plan’s purpose as stated was to “attract and retain qualified people, provide incentive for performance, maintain competitiveness with other public sector agencies and ensure equitable compensation to all employees regardless of age, sex, race and/or disability.”

However in 1999 the city amended the plan by increasing pay to employees with less than five years tenure proportionally more than those older officers. As the court notes, “Although some officers over the age of 40 had less than five years of service, most of the older officers had more.” The officers claimed “that the City deliberately discriminated against them because of their age (the “disparate-treatment” claim) and that they were “adversely affected” by the plan because of their age (the “disparate-impact” claim).” The officers cited the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) as their justification for the suit. Lower courts had dismissed the disparate-impact claims noting such claims were not available under ADEA.

The SCOTUS ruling did not offer a “win” for the officers, but did provide clarification on interpetation of ADEA. While Justice Stevens (writing for the majority) stated that “the petitioners had not set forth a valid claim” he did rule that ADEA did authorize disparate-impact claims.

What does that mean?  The Times

While it remains to be seen whether employees invoking these claims will prevail in substantially greater numbers, the decision will almost certainly result in more such cases going to trial, rather than being dismissed at the early stages on summary judgment. That prospect, in turn, will require employers to examine any policies that have different impacts on workers of different ages and to make sure that they can justify the policies on a basis other than age.”

I can’t imagine that it will be substantially easier to prove age discrimination as HR departments and consultants will be busy. More stress for managers no doubt (any wonder Americans as a whole aren’t sleeping enough). NY Times Article. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette also weighs in on the impact.

Wait, there’s more…
In a separate case the Bush administration has taken it on the chin in an attempt to cut off or reduce health benefits to retirees once they reach 65. Judge Anita B. Brody of the Federal District Court in Philadelphia struck down the Bush attempt to cut off benefits, and issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the new rule. Again the Times has it.

The rule would have created an explicit exemption to the age discrimination law, allowing employers to reduce health benefits for retirees when they became eligible for Medicare. Under the rule, Judge Brody said, employers could have given older retirees “health benefits that are inferior” to those given retirees younger than 65.

This action was supported by AARP who called the rule “executive arrogance” (I may have to reconsider an AARP membership).  Next? Well, the trade association that favored the rule has made the usual threatening noise such as, “a major setback for many employers that are trying to maintain employer-provided benefits for pre-65 retirees.” Even money we will see this again, and why not as this rule was a replay of an earlier attempt to deny retirees benefits (noted in the Times article). My bet is well see an amendment to ADEA soon (my candidate would be Pence of IN in the house).

Gotta love those activist judges who just can’t keep themselves from the reality of the law. I am shocked I tell you, shocked and dismayed.

[Cross posted at dKos]

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