Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Supreme Court Hears Case on Age Bias in Workplace

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Supreme Court Hears Case on Age Bias in Workplace

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Supreme Court justices strained to recall their law school studies of contracts Wednesday in an important case for older workers who think they were illegally pressured to quit.

At issue: Must those workers pay back their severance money before suing for age bias?

Lower courts ruled in a Louisiana dispute that up-front paybacks by employees are necessary, but the Clinton administration told the nation's highest court that such a requirement thwarts the protection Congress thought it provided in a 1990 law. Requiring paybacks "would put the workers exactly back in the situation they were in before enactment of the statute," Justice Department lawyer Beth Brinkmann argued. She was joined by Barbara Haynie, a lawyer representing a Louisiana woman who says age bias played a role in her forced departure from a nuclear plant job. But Carter Phillips, representing the woman's former employer, said allowing age-bias lawsuits by workers who keep severance benefits would violate "a bedrock principle of contract law." A 1990 amendment to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which protects employees over age 40, says workers cannot waive their right to sue under the act unless the waiver is "knowing and voluntary." The law requires that employers specifically tell employees that such waivers cover claims under the age-discrimination act. That provision in the law is at odds with the general contract-law rule that says people cannot challenge contracts they entered unless they first return or try to return any benefit they received. If the court decides that the 1990 federal law did not change that general rule, workers who accepted and already spent all or part of their severance packages could be deterred from suing over alleged age bias. Justice David H. …

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