Calif. discrimination suit is settled for $250 million

EEOC successfully challenges pensions based on age at hiring

January 31, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The federal government announced its largest settlement ever in a discrimination lawsuit yesterday when California's giant state pension fund agreed to pay $250 million to disabled public safety officers who sued over age discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the money would be paid to 1,700 disabled police officers, firefighters and other safety officers whose disability benefits were reduced based on their age when they were hired.

Under a 24-year-old California law, a public safety officer hired at age 30 was to receive 50 percent of salary when disabled, someone hired at 35, 40 percent, someone hired at 40, 30 percent, and someone hired at 45, just 20 percent.

The percentages could vary according to various factors, such as job classification.

At a news conference in San Francisco, federal officials announced that the pension fund, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, known as Calpers, would pay $50 million in retroactive benefits to the disabled safety officers, averaging about $30,000 per person.

Calpers also agreed to increase future benefits to those officers by $200 million.

The EEOC had intervened in the age-discrimination case after a federal court of appeals signaled that the 1995 lawsuit brought by several public safety officers should be dismissed.

The court of appeals cited a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that barred individuals from suing states in federal court for relief under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Officials with the employment commission said they intervened to protect the rights of the safety officers.

"The EEOC was the sole entity available to obtain justice for these public safety officers who were injured in the line of duty," said William R. Tamayo, regional attorney in the commission's San Francisco office.

Lawyers involved in the age-discrimination lawsuit said the bill that reduced pensions for older public safety officers was enacted in 1979 because many lawmakers wanted to discourage older workers from applying for public safety jobs.

Patricia Macht, a spokeswoman for Calpers, said the pension fund thought the settlement was "fair restitution" to the retirees.

She said the settlement would not affect the security of Calpers' assets, $132 billion.

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