A "Means to an End": The Cline Court's Pragmatic Refusal to Allow Reverse Discrimination under the Adea

Article excerpt

Employers across the country anxiously awaited the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline,1 an age discrimination case with far-reaching implications for employers and employees of all ages. The Cline case posed an interesting question of reverse age discrimination: whether an employee protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA") could sustain a claim against his or her employer for affording age-based preferential treatment to an even older employee. The Supreme Court answered that question with a resounding "No," which undoubtedly is the correct result. Writing for the majority, Justice Souter took a most interesting path in arriving at his decision, however, raising interpretive and policy issues along the way. While Justice Thomas leveled perhaps some well-deserved criticism of the analyses utilized by the majority, adoption of his conclusions would have resulted in devastating consequences for employers as well as employees nearing retirement age, and retirees. A review of the Cline majority and dissenting opinions leads to the inescapable conclusion that the practical consequences of the decision on employers and employees, rather than any particular interpretive model or theory, were dispositive of the issues presented.

THE FACTS OFTHE CLINECASE

The facts of Cline present a textbook test case for whether the ADEA would allow any form of a "reverse discrimination" lawsuit. Prior to 1997, General Dynamics afforded full retiree health benefits to all of its employees who had at least 30 years of seniority with the company. Then, in 1997, a collective bargaining agreement between the United Auto Workers and General Dynamics that governed two of General Dynamics' facilities was renegotiated. Under the new agreement, only employees at least 50 years of age were eligible for full retiree health benefits.

In response, approximately 200 General Dynamics employees, all aged 40 to 49, filed a class action lawsuit against General Dynamics, alleging that the new collective bargaining agreement violated their rights under the ADEA by denying them benefits on the basis of their age. Broadly, the ADEA protects individuals aged 40 and over from discrimination in employment on the basis of their age.2 The particular ADEA provision under which the Cline plaintiffs brought suit, section 623(a)(l), states as follows:

It shall be unlawful for an employer (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age . . .3

The 40-somethings first pressed their case with the EEOC, arguing that the collective bargaining agreement violated section 623(a)(l) because it "discriminate[d against them] . . . because of [their] age."4 The EEOC agreed with the claimants, and invited General Dynamics to settle. When settlement efforts failed, however, the case headed for the courts.

The trial court dismissed the 40-somethings' case, and in doing so, sided with the near universal opinion of courts previously considering this sort of reverse age discrimination suit. The trial court found that the ADEA does not prohibit discrimination against younger workers, relying heavily on the Seventh Circuit's opinion in Hamilton v. Caterpillar, lnc? The Sixth Circuit, however, reversed, basing its ruling on the plain language of the statute, as well as the EEOC's interpretation of section 623(a)(l), which would have allowed a "reverse" age discrimination suit between members of the protected class. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that if Congress had intended the ADEA to preclude reverse age discrimination, it would have expressly provided such a prohibition in the text of the Act, which it did not.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, holding that discrimination within the protected class against the "relatively young" in favor of the "relatively old" is outside the protection of the ADEA. …