High court overturns age bias decision Gap need not be great for job switch to be illegal, ruling says

April 02, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it is illegal for a company to select a younger employee over an older one for a job or promotion just because of age, even if there is no great gap between their ages.

Clearing up a dispute among lower courts, the court decided that a worker chosen as a replacement need not be younger than 40 for the switch to violate the federal law against age discrimination in the workplace.

The ruling came in the case of a North Carolina man who was fired six years ago when he was 56 after his company reorganized. He was replaced by a 40-year-old.

Because the 40-year-old himself is within the age group protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, his selection could not violate that law, according to a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., the appeals court that handles federal disputes from Maryland and neighboring states.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned that decision and clarified what proof older workers must offer to claim age discrimination. So long as the worker "has lost out because of his age," it makes no difference that the younger worker chosen to take his place is over or under 40, the court said in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

The crucial factor is the age of the worker claiming to be a victim of age bias, the court said.

The decision does not mean that older workers shunted aside for younger ones will always win claims of age bias. It does not mean, for example, that older workers will succeed if their replacement is quite close to them in age: for example, a 68-year-old replaced by a 65-year-old.

Choosing one employee over another, when the one selected is "insignificantly younger," is likely to be weak proof that age was the reason for the switch.

"A far more reliable indication of age discrimination," Justice Scalia said, is when the replacement is "substantially younger." That is the key, not whether the younger worker himself was protected by the federal law.

The challenge was brought by James O'Connor of Cary, N.C., the general manager of a North Carolina region for Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., a vending machine and cafeteria company, who was fired in 1990 when the company redrew its regional boundaries.

Shortly before he was let go, his boss told him: "It's about time we get some young blood in this company." Earlier, the boss had told him: "You are too damn old for this kind of work."

After the reorganization, the job he would have had went to a 40-year-old, Ted Finnell. Mr. O'Connor sued, claiming age bias.

But the federal appeals court said Mr. Finnell's age barred the claim.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to reinstate Mr. O'Connor's lawsuit. It will be up to lower courts to decide whether he now wins or loses on the discrimination point.

In a second case, the justices ruled that federal judges are strictly limited in their power to throw out the first federal court challenge that a death-row inmate makes to a state murder conviction and death sentence.

Judges may reject such a challenge only when federal rules or Supreme Court rulings give a clear-cut reason for doing so. Judges may not turn the inmate aside simply for reasons the judges personally think are proper, the court said.

In a separate part of the ruling, the justices made clear that once death-row inmates come to federal court with their first challenge, judges must postpone the execution until that challenge can be heard.

The decision overturned a lower-court ruling that a Georgia inmate awaiting execution, Larry Grant Lonchar of Atlanta, was not entitled to pursue his first "habeas corpus" challenge because he had filed it only at the "11th hour." It simply is wrong to let him wait so long to start his plea, the lower court said.

Lonchar, sentenced to die in 1986 for killing three people over a $10,000 gambling debt, was five minutes away from execution when the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case. At several points along the way, Lonchar had said he was ready to be executed and did not want the appeals to go forward.

But he did file a challenge after he decided that he wanted to be kept alive long enough for the Georgia legislature to change the state's method of execution from the electric chair to lethal drugs -- a change necessary to allow him to donate his organs for medical use after he is put to death.

Yesterday, Lonchar's lawyer, John Matteson, told the Associated Press that Lonchar had changed his mind again, and now wants to be executed without further legal proceedings. His family has claimed that he is not competent to make the choice.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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