The Age Discrimination in Employment Act outlaws discrimination against employees because of their age.
Seems simple enough. But is it illegal when the employee being discriminated against is younger than the worker receiving the favored treatment?
Wednesday, the US Supreme Court takes up a major employment case examining whether the 1967 statute is intended exclusively to protect older workers, or whether it also authorizes so-called reverse-discrimination claims by younger workers.
The case holds important implications for many retirement benefit plans and early-retirement packages. To the extent that such plans offer increasingly generous benefit levels triggered solely by age, they could become the litigation targets of younger employees complaining about illegal disparate treatment.
At its essence, the case is a clash between those who insist on a strict reading of the text of the ADEA and those who say the law must be considered in the broader context of congressional intent.
The ADEA makes it illegal to discriminate because of age against any worker 40 or older. But the law's wording leaves open to dispute exactly what kind of discrimination lawmakers sought to bar. Does it only protect "older" workers, or does the law also cover workers older than 40 but younger than others receiving favored treatment because of their older age?
"The ADEA protects individuals from being discriminated against because they are too old, not because they are too young," says Donald Verrilli in his brief to the court on behalf of General Dynamics Land Systems, the petitioner in the case.
Mark Biggerman counters in his brief for a group of General Dynamics workers: "The plain language of the ADEA clearly and unambiguously provides that persons age forty and older may not be discriminated against because of their age."
The dispute stems from a class-action lawsuit filed by Dennis Cline and nearly 200 other employees at General Dynamics plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The plants produce Abrams tanks for the US military. In 1997, General Dynamics and the employees' union, the United Auto Workers, reached an agreement on a projected cutback in retirement benefits. Under the plan, all employees with 30 years of seniority who were age 50 or older by July 1, 1997, would continue to receive full health benefits upon retirement. Those younger than 50 would not.
At the time, Mr. Cline was 47 years old and had already put in 28 years at the plant. Suddenly, his retirement benefit disappeared.
In his suit, he charged that he'd been denied benefits solely because of his age in violation of the ADEA. A federal judge threw the suit out. But in a 2-to-1 vote, a panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals …