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Age Discrimination Law Gains Strength with New Ruling

by Erin Cassin

The Supreme Court lowered the burden of proof on age discrimination cases, now to be based on effect rather than intent, despite ruling that plaintiffs bringing one such case did not meet even the newly lowered standard.

Apr. 1, 2005 – In a decision that has strengthened legislation outlawing age discrimination in the workplace, the United States Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 does apply to situations where an employer indirectly engages in age discrimination against workers who are 40 years of age or older.

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The judgment was issued in connection with the case Smith et al. v. City of Jackson, Mississippi et al., in which 30 police and public safety officers employed by the City of Jackson alleged that their employer had discriminated against them based on age by way of a new personnel pay plan.

The program, which was implemented to increase the starting salaries of police officers and dispatchers to put them on par with the regional average, resulted in proportionately higher pay raises for those workers with less than five years of experience, as compared with more seasoned employees. Since many of the workers with seniority were also older than 40 years of age when the policy went into effect, these employees argued that they had been victims of "disparate impact." A situation of disparate impact occurs when an employer implements workplace procedures or policies that, although not intentionally discriminatory, result in less favorable treatment of a certain group of workers who are protected by law from discrimination.

In the course of their decision, the Supreme Court justices examined whether or not disparate-impact claims in regards to age discrimination are allowable under the ADEA. The court had previously addressed the issue of disparate-impact claims in 1971, but only in regards to those people protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In that case, Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the justices ruled that "good intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as ‘built-in headwinds’ for minority groups and are unrelated to measuring job capability."

In reviewing the case of Smith et al. v. City of Jackson, Mississippi et al., the Supreme Court’s majority reached the same conclusion concerning age discrimination that it had arrived at in 1971 in regard to discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority of the judges, "We now hold that the ADEA does authorize recovery in ‘disparate-impact’ cases comparable to Griggs."

The Supreme Court ruling has, in effect, bolstered the ADEA by expanding its reach and lightening the burden of proof for future age discrimination plaintiffs. Since it had previously been unclear to the lower courts as to whether disparate impact claims are indeed permissible under the ADEA, many plaintiffs were previously required to prove that discrimination was actually intended. The charge of "discriminatory intent" involves a higher burden of proof than that of disparate –impact, since the latter merely requires a showing of effect.

Although the majority opinion did concur that the plaintiffs in Smith et al. v. City of Jackson, Mississippi et al. were allowed to file a disparate impact claim under the ADEA, the justices ultimately dismissed the case in a vote of 8 to 0. The court reasoned that the plaintiffs failed to prove that their employer had actually caused a situation of disparate impact to occur.

Stevens wrote that the city’s plan was based on factors involving years of experience, which was reasonable, given its intended goal. Therefore, the "petitioners have done little more than point out that the pay plan at issue is relatively less generous to older workers than to younger workers. They have not identified any specific test, requirement, or practice within the pay plan that has an adverse impact on older workers."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Erin Cassin is a contributing journalist.

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