High Court Will Review Age Bias in the Workplace
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2004; Page E01
The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will revisit the
question of whether workers 40 and older may sue their employers for
policies that allegedly treat older workers worse than younger ones,
even though they appear neutral on paper.
Though the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was adopted by
Congress in 1967, the Supreme Court has never decided whether it
authorizes cases involving unintentional discrimination, known
as "disparate impact" suits. Meanwhile, federal appeals courts have
issued contradictory rulings on the issue.
The Supreme Court tried to settle the matter in 2001, when it agreed
to hear a case brought by older workers at a Florida utility who said
they were disproportionately laid off during corporate downsizing.
But the court dismissed the case without a ruling in 2002.
The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire
or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any
individual with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions, or
privileges of employment, because of such individual's age."
In the case the court has just agreed to hear, Jackson, Miss., police
and public safety officers who are older than 40 say they were
treated unfairly under a new pay scale, which had the effect of
offering them smaller wage increases than employees younger than 40.
In 2002, a federal judge ruled against the officers, saying the ADEA
gave them no right to sue in cases of unintentional discrimination,
and last year the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th
The police officers argue that the age-discrimination law should be
read to permit disparate-impact claims because the Supreme Court has
adopted such an interpretation of laws against employment
discrimination by race.
In its brief, the City of Jackson agreed that the court should hear
the case but argued that the lower courts' decisions in its favor
reflect "a more natural construction" of the ADEA.
The case is Smith v. City of Jackson, No. 03-1160. Oral arguments are
expected in the fall, and a decision is expected by July 2005.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company