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
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 reinstated the suit. …