Supreme Court Rules on Age Discrimination

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal ban on age discrimination does not necessarily bar employers from firing older workers to avoid paying them pensions, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Such firings would violate the age-bias law only if age, as opposed to years of service, were an actual reason for the firing, the court ruled unanimously in the case of a Massachusetts man fired at age 62 shortly before he would have earned a pension.

An employee fired under these circumstances could sue under federal pension law, however, the court noted.

"A decision by the company to fire an older employee solely because he has nine-plus years of service and therefore is `close to vesting' would not constitute discriminatory treatment on the basis of age," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.

"It is the very essence of age discrimination for an older employee to be fired because the employer believes that productivity and competence decline with old age," O'Connor wrote. "When the employer's decision is wholly motivated by factors other than age, the problem of inaccurate and stigmatizing stereotypes disappears."

She said an employee's age is different from years of service, and relatively young workers can earn a pension if it takes only 10 years to become vested _ meaning they are owed a pension.

But employers could violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act if they use pension status as a "proxy for age" by assuming workers who are about to earn their pensions tend to be older, O'Connor said.

Walter F. Biggins was fired by the Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, Mass., in 1986 shortly before qualifying for his pension. …