Supreme Court Removes Hurdle to Suits Alleging Age Bias
By LINDA GREENHOUSE
Published: March 31, 2005
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WASHINGTON, March 30 - Workers who sue their employers for age
discrimination need not prove that the discrimination was intentional, the
Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
Adopting a pro-worker interpretation of the federal law that prohibits age
discrimination in employment, the 5-to-3 decision held that employees can
prevail by showing that a policy has a discriminatory impact on older
workers, regardless of the employer's motivation.
The decision removed the requirement, imposed by a number of lower federal
courts, that employees produce the equivalent of a smoking gun in order to
win an age discrimination suit. Since discrimination on the job is often
subtle, and proof of motivation often elusive, the need to demonstrate
intentional discrimination has led to the dismissal of many lawsuits before
But the Supreme Court's decision, in an opinion by Justice John Paul
Stevens, did not leave employers defenseless. They will be able to defend
themselves by proving that a challenged policy was based on "reasonable
factors other than age."
In fact, the court accepted that defense in the case at hand, a lawsuit
brought by a group of older police officers in Jackson, Miss., who
challenged the city's decision to give proportionately more generous raises
to officers with less than five years on the force, most of whom were
In another case involving age discrimination in the workplace, a federal
district judge on Wednesday blocked a Bush administration rule that would
have allowed employers to reduce or eliminate health benefits for retirees
when they reach age 65.
The appeal by the officers in Jackson reached the Supreme Court after two
lower courts - the federal district court in Jackson and the United States
Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans - ruled that the law
required them to prove intentional discrimination and that claims of a
discriminatory impact were categorically unavailable.
In rejecting that interpretation of the statute, the Supreme Court
nonetheless found that the city's rationale for the differential raises was
"unquestionably reasonable." The city had said it needed to raise salaries
in the junior ranks in order to become more competitive with other police
departments in the region in recruiting and retaining officers. "While there
may have been other reasonable ways for the city to achieve its goals, the
one selected was not unreasonable," Justice Stevens said.
While the plaintiffs did not win their case, the result of their Supreme
Court appeal, Smith v. City of Jackson, No. 03-1160, was to remove a
significant ambiguity from a statute that is of growing importance to an
aging American workforce. Within five years, half the labor force will be at
least 40 years old, the age at which the law's protections apply.
The debate among the lower courts over how to interpret the statute "has
been one of the great unresolved conflicts," James J. Brudney, a law
professor at Ohio State University and an expert on labor law, said in an
interview on Wednesday. He said the decision was surprising given the trend
toward foreclosing what are known as "disparate impact" claims.
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.
Professor Brudney said the decision left important questions to be addressed
in future cases, such as whether cost-saving can be accepted as a reasonable
justification for a policy that falls more harshly on older workers, who are
usually among the highest paid. Judges have disagreed on this issue, he
While five justices agreed Wednesday that disparate-impact cases should be
permitted, they did not agree on the reasoning. Justice Stevens was joined
by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer in
concluding that the text of the statute, as well as its consistent
interpretation by executive branch agencies, supported the conclusion that
such cases should be permitted.
Justice Stevens cited the statute's prohibition of actions that "deprive any
individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his
status as an employee." He noted that "the text focuses on the effects of
the action on the employee rather than the motivation for the action of the
Justice Antonin Scalia said the court did not need to examine the statute
itself but should accept the views of the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, which adopted the disparate-impact interpretation of the statute
in a formal rule-making proceeding soon after the law's enactment. "This is
an absolutely classic case for deference to agency interpretation," Justice
One curiosity of the case was that the Bush administration did not appear in
the Supreme Court to present the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's
view of the statute. The solicitor general's office declined to file a brief
defending the commission's regulation.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a former chairman of the commission, and Justice
Anthony M. Kennedy joined a dissenting opinion by Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in the
case. He had just begun his treatment for thyroid cancer with the case was
argued on Nov. 3.
In her opinion, Justice O'Connor emphasized a different portion of the
statute. She noted that the law prohibits employers from taking specific
actions against an individual "because of such individual's age." The
"natural reading" of the text, Justice O'Connor said, was that "an employer
is liable only if its adverse action against an individual is motivated by
the individual's age."
This was the second consecutive ruling from the court to give a broad
interpretation to a federal civil rights law. On Tuesday, the court ruled
that the law known as Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in schools and
colleges, also prohibits retaliation against those who complain about sex