High court eases age-bias lawsuits

It rules in favor of fired workers at Lockheed Martin

June 20, 2008|By Bloomberg News

The Supreme Court made it easier yesterday for workers to win lawsuits that claim a company policy discriminates against older employees, ruling in favor of 17 fired workers suing a Lockheed Martin Corp. unit.

The 7-1 decision puts more of a burden on employers to justify layoffs and other employment practices that disproportionately affect older workers. The majority said that, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the employer must show it had a legitimate reason for the challenged practice other than age discrimination.

Some lower courts, including an appeals court in the Lockheed case, had saddled workers with the burden on that issue, requiring them to show that the employer lacked any reasonable basis other than age for its actions.

Writing for six justices, Justice David Souter acknowledged that the court's decision "makes it harder and costlier" for employers to defend lawsuits. He said nonetheless, "We have to read it the way Congress wrote it."

Employee advocates hailed the ruling, saying it will be of particular help to workers in close cases that go before a jury. Workers invoked the age-bias law in more than 19,000 complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in fiscal 2007.

"The reality is when you have such a flexible standard like reasonableness, telling the jury who bears the burden on that probably has a significant effect in a number of cases," said Kevin Russell, a Washington lawyer who argued the case on behalf of the workers.

"Any other result would have made it virtually impossible for employees to successfully challenge facially neutral corporate policies and practices" that target older workers, said David Certner, chief legislative counsel for AARP, which represents older Americans.

Rae Vann, a lawyer for the employer-backed Equal Employment Advisory Council, said the ruling may encourage more worker lawsuits invoking the age-bias law. She said the ruling wasn't "particularly surprising," given that the Bush administration supported the workers in the case.

The administration said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted the age-discrimination law as placing the burden on the employer.

The ruling is a partial victory for former employees of the Lockheed unit that operates the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York. They were among 31 employees, all but one over age 40, who were fired by the unit in 1996.

The case was a follow-up to a 2005 ruling that said workers suing under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act don't always have to show intentional discrimination. The court in that case said workers instead can try to prove that a company policy or action disproportionately hurt older workers.

The latest question was how to apply an exception in the law that shields employers from liability when a challenged practice "is based on reasonable factors other than age."

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