Reverse Age Discrimination: A New Twist to an Age-Old Problem

By Burke, Debra D.; Kinard, Jerry L. | Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, January-July 2006 | Go to article overview

Reverse Age Discrimination: A New Twist to an Age-Old Problem


Burke, Debra D., Kinard, Jerry L., Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues


ABSTRACT

In General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline the Supreme Court held that it was not illegal under the ADEA to preference older workers over younger workers with respect to some benefit plans, even though both sets of employees were protected under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. This paper will examine that case, as well as the decisions of the lower courts with respect to this issue of reverse discrimination under the ADEA. It will also examine whether or not other theories of liability recognized under Title VII, such as workplace harassment and disparate impact discrimination, translate into liability for employers under the ADEA.

INTRODUCTION

General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline involved a group of workers between the ages of 40 and 49, who claimed to be the victims of reverse age discrimination because their employer provides more generous benefits to fellow workers who are 50 and older (Brostoff, 2003). This lawsuit, brought by Dennis Cline and nearly 200 other workers, was filed because a renegotiated labor contract between General Dynamics and the UAW stipulates that full health-care retirements benefits are provided only to retirees with 30 years seniority and who were at least 50 years of age at the time of the new contract (Austin, 2004). Younger employees at the company argued that the contract violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits workplace discrimination against workers 40 and over. In essence, the plaintiffs alleged that they were the victims of reverse discrimination, a term used to refer to discrimination in favor of members of a class that civil rights legislation was designed to protect. Such cases previously had been brought by Title VII plaintiffs, who were Caucasian, or alternatively male, alleging that they had been discriminated against in favor of racial minorities, or women, respectively (Minkin, 2003).

A federal district court in Toledo, Ohio, dismissed the claim, but a divided three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July of 2002, that the workers did in fact have a legitimate case. The majority opinion held that if Congress wanted to limit the ADEA to protect only those workers who are relatively older, it clearly had the power and acuity to do so, but it did not (Hofmann, 2003). General Dynamics appealed, and on April 21, 2003, the high court agreed to review the case.

This paper first will examine the ADEA, and its place in federal civil rights legislation. It will compare the application of other judicially developed theories of liability under Title VII, such as the law of harassment being a form of discrimination, as well as the theory of disparate impact discrimination, and their acceptance under interpretations of the ADEA. It then will discuss and analyze the decisions of the lower courts in the General Dynamics case, which involved allegations of reverse discrimination, also a recognized theory of liability under Title VII, and its application to the ADEA. Finally, it will examine the decision ultimately rendered by the United States Supreme Court, its policy ramifications, and potential impact on other areas of law that attempt to bridge theories of liability between Title VII and the ADEA.

THE AGE DISCRIMINATION IN EMPLOYMENT ACT OF 1967: AN OVERVIEW

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted "to achieve equality of employment opportunities and remove barriers which operated in the past to favor an identifiable group of white employers over other employees." (Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 1971, p. 431). Specifically, Title VII provides that "[I]t shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer--(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin .

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