Older workers don't necessarily have to prove an employer
intentionally favored younger employees in order to sue under a
federal age discrimination law.
In an important ruling expanding the scope of the Age
Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the US Supreme Court on
Wednesday said workplace policies that disadvantage older workers -
even if not directly caused by age bias - can be a form of illegal
Despite that decision, the justices ruled against a group of 30
members of the Jackson, Miss., police force who had filed an age
discrimination suit based on a city pay plan that granted more
lucrative benefits to younger workers than older ones.
The high court said that while so-called "disparate impact"
claims are permitted under the ADEA, the Jackson police officers had
not demonstrated enough of a claim to survive dismissal.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, which was
joined in full by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and
Stephen Breyer. Justice Antonin Scalia provided the key fifth vote
on the disparate-impact issue, but said he reached the same result
by deferring to a government agency's interpretation that the ADEA
permits disparate-impact claims.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented on the disparate-impact
issue, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Chief
Justice William Rehnquist did not participate.
The 1967 ADEA protects all workers aged 40 and older. Roughly
half of America's civilian workforce is over 40, and the proportion
of older workers is growing. Wednesday's ruling in Smith v. City of
Jackson puts employers on notice that it may not be enough to avoid
policies and practices that use age as a proxy in employment
In addition to outlawing discriminatory treatment, the ADEA also
bars certain actions that result in a discriminatory impact on
protected individuals aged 40 and older, the majority justices said.
But the majority was careful to limit the potential scope of that
holding, saying that a plaintiff must show more than mere disparate
impact to prevail.
The ruling comes as a result of a 2001 lawsuit challenging an
effort by the City of Jackson to bring its salaries up to regional
standards. In carrying out the salary plan, officers and police
dispatchers with five or fewer years of tenure received
proportionately greater raises than employees with more than five
Most of those with five or more years of experience were over 40
years of age and thus covered by the age discrimination law. They
sued under the ADEA, claiming that giving younger workers
disproportionately higher raises than older workers is a form of age