Supreme Court Rules Age Discrimination Does Not Need to Be Deliberate

March 30, 2005 ( - The US Supreme Court has ruled that age discrimination need not be intentional for employers to be held liable for its effects.

>On Wednesday, the court laid down the ruling in the case of  Smith v. City of Jackson and made it easier for those over 40 to allege discrimination, even if there was no intended harm. The court dismissed the suit at hand, but voted 5-3 (with Chief Justice William Rehnquist not participating) that such suits are allowed underage-discrimination laws.

>In the case, 30 police officers and dispatchers sued the City of Jackson, Mississippi, over a pay performance plan that they claimed gave substantially larger pay raises to employees with five or fewer years of tenure (See Supreme Court to Hear Age Discrimination Suit ). The suit claimed that the policy, even if not intentional, had an unfavorable impact on employees 40 and over.

>Lower courts had thrown out the suit, reasoning that disparate impact claims were barred.

>In the ruling Wednesday, Justice John Paul Stevens – who is 84 – wrote that while police officers can get into court to show unfavorable impact, they failed to do so here. He said the city’s explanation that it was trying to make salaries for junior officers more competitive with similar positions was “reasonable.”  He also said that in some instances, employers were allowed to treat workers differently because of age. “Age … not uncommonly has relevance to an individual’s capacity to engage in certain types of employment,” wrote Stevens in supporting the point that age can be used in certain circumstances.

Disparate Claims

>The court has already ruled that so-called “disparate impact claims” are allowed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex, religion or race. With its 5-3 decision, the court made it clear on Wednesday that it should not be different for age, although it stated the scope of liability is narrower.

>Employers have claimed that allowing disparate impact claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) could hurt their ability to make decisions based on age-neutral factors such as training or performance, even if the impact happens to be greater on older workers, according to the AP. Advocates on the other side assert that employers are never frank about intentionally favoring younger workers, making age bias claims difficult to win without the rare “smoking gun”.

>The Supreme Court ruling tries to strike a balance between the two opposing sides.   It allows older workers to make a disparate impact claim under the ADEA regardless of intent, but also permits an employer to cite “reasonable” factors – such as cost-cutting – to support a practice that hurts older workers.

>Applying these standards to the case at hand, Stevens wrote that “the city’s decision to grant a larger raise to lower echelon employees for the purpose of bringing salaries in line with that of surrounding police forces was a decision based on a ‘reasonable factor other than age’ that responded to the city’s legitimate goal of retaining police officers.” Because workers who are older are usually long-time employees with higher salaries, businesses could not cut expenses without violating the law even if no ill intent was involved, he wrote in dismissing the suit.

>The ruling makes it clear that although such suits are now allowed, the standards for a case will be high. The ruling shows that older workers now have a lesser burden to raise their claim in court, although, ultimately, it may still be difficult for them to win. About 75 million people – roughly half the nation’s workforce – are covered by the decision.