US lowers bar in age discrimination suits

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Friday, April 1, 2005

United States Supreme Court building

The US Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that plaintiffs bringing lawsuits against employers need not prove the employers intended to discriminate against them on the basis of their age. The ruling lowers the legal bar, over which an employee who felt wronged by an employer must pass, by allowing cases to move forward when explicit evidence is lacking.

The court ruled on the case of police officers in Jackson, Miss. In their 5-3 decision, they found for a group of officers to proceed with damages claiming they were harmed by their department’s salary policy. The findings of the court do not mean the group of officers will necessarily win their lawsuit. Rather, the judges thought their particular case was flimsy, but they ruled the officer’s complaints were on valid grounds to pursue the claim. Therefore, the suit will not be thrown out of Mississippi’s state court as being groundless.

Business interests closely watching the case and fearing worse were reassured by the court stopping far short of supporting the officers’ claims. The Jackson city salary plan was changed to increase the pay of junior level officers by 30% to be competitive with surrounding municipalities and attract recruits.

The more senior level police officers’ age discrimination allegations will probably not be enough to win the suit, but the effect of the new law means employers will need to defend their practices, and cannot summarily get lawsuits dismissed on the basis of allegations being groundless. Legal scholars believe this has importance because it acknowledges some forms of age discrimination in the work place are subtle. With half of US workers in the workforce now over 40, employers will need to be attentive to their practices or find them challenged in court.

The language of the ruling broadens the nation’s existing law found in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act passed in 1967. While lawyers do not expect a great increase in age-bias cases due to the ruling, it does make the path to mounting a case easier. It is notable that corporate policies that do adversely discriminate against older workers are still considered legal if they are formed on reasonable grounds other than age. The law’s effect will not necessarily have employers change their policies, but rather re-think their practices to assure they are fair.