Supremes Begin Hearing Reverse Age Discrimination Case

November 12, 2003 ( - The US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments today in a case brought by younger workers claiming that taking away their post-retirement benefits while allowing older workers to retain them was discriminatory.

The case – General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline – involves workers who were at least 40 years old but not yet 50 at General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Under a new bargaining contract, those workers were denied retiree health benefits, a benefit they would have qualified forunder the previous agreement between General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. and the United Auto Workers, according to an Associated Press report.

After being denied the benefits, the group of approximately 200 workers brought suit against General Dynamics, claiming the action amounted to a type of reverse age discrimination prohibited by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Court Rulings

Originally, the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio dismissed the case on the ground that the ADEA does not allow claims for reverse discrimination against younger workers. However, the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed in a 2 to 1 decision in July 2002, ruling that the plain language of the ADEA prohibits any type of age discrimination, allowing the workers’ claims to go forward .

“[T]he fact that some members within the protected class were beneficiaries of the discriminatory action of which other members of the protected class – the plaintiffs – were victims, does not somehow suspend the language of the statute, which prohibits age discrimination against ‘any individual’ within the protected class,”  Circuit Judge James Ryan wrote for the appeals court.

In the company’s petition to the high court for a reversal of the appellate court’s ruling, General Dynamicsargued that the 6th Circuit’s decision conflicts with rulings by the 1st and 7th Circuits.   Those courts determined that the ADEA does not preclude employers from adopting policies that favor older workers over younger workers .  

Further, General Dynamics said the 6th Circuit’s decision conflictedwith the Supreme Court’s decision in O’Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp. , General Dynamics argued. “If, as the O’Connor court held, an ADEA plaintiff cannot even make out a prima facie case absent proof that the preferred employee was ‘substantially younger’ than the plaintiff, it necessarily follows that the ADEA does not proscribe employer policies that favor older workers over those ‘substantially younger.'”

Thus, General Dynamics urged the Supreme Court toreverse the appeals panel ruling, noting that the appellate court decision threatens to harm corporate efforts to continue granting benefits to older workers, while putting in place new programs for younger workers that are affordable.

“[I]nterpreting [ADEA] to allow suits for reverse discrimination threatens to invalidate threshold-age requirements for a variety of employee benefits,” General Dynamics said. “In times of economic uncertainty, employers are faced with the need to scale back previously generous benefits programs; in many cases, the choice they face is between offering a retirement or other benefit only to some employees, and offering it to none.”

Attorneys for the workers, in their brief opposing Supreme Court review, argued “Rescission of continued health insurance benefits after retirement … to employees age 40 to 49 solely on the basis of age constitutes age discrimination.” They said reverse discrimination, “which involves a claim brought by someone outside the protected class,” is not involved in this case.

Taking Sides

On the side of the General Dynamics employees who sued is the normally pro-business Bush administration. Conversely, unions, business groups and AARP, the advocacy group for people 50 and over, have sided with General Dynamics.

The company was also joined earlier by the US Chamber of Commerce, in a friend of the court filing.   In that filing, the Chamber asked for high court review of the matter, arguing the 6th Circuit decision was at odds with the decisions of other federal court circuits and that it misinterpreted the federal statute.

The case is General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline , 02-1080.