The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for older workers in a closely-watched age discrimination case, placing on employers the burden of proving that a layoff or other action that hurts older workers more than others was based not on age but on some other “reasonable factor.” The 7-to-1 decision overturned a ruling by the federal appeals court in New York, which said employees had the burden of disproving an employer’s defense of reasonableness. The case was brought by 28 employees who lost their jobs during cutbacks at a federal research laboratory in upstate New York. All but one of the employees who were laid off were at least 40, the age at which protections begin under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The issue in the case, while technical, is important for the litigation of age discrimination cases in which an employer’s action or policy that appears neutral on its face has a disparate impact on older workers. David Certner, the chief legislative counsel for AARP, praised the decision, saying it would prove “vital to the creation and maintenance of a workplace that is fair and free of age bias.”
In the case, (Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory), the employer was faced with laying off some employees after a voluntary buyout failed to produce the desired staff reduction. Managers were instructed to rate employees for how “flexible” and “retrainable” they were. Of the 31 who were eventually laid off, 30 were at least 40 years old. The age discrimination law provides that an employment action that would be “otherwise prohibited” is lawful if “the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age.” The question in the case was what happens once an employer invokes this defense: does the employer have to prove, or do the Plaintiffs have to disprove, the existence of the reasonable non-age factors? The laid-off Knolls Atomic workers won their case before a jury, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the verdict on the ground that the employees had not refuted the reasonableness of the laboratory’s selection process.
Justice Souter indicated in his opinion that Congress – not the Court — would have to give employers relief, and that’s most interesting. Hopefully, that will be the justices’ position in the federal preemption case now before the Court. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion to say that the Court was properly adopting the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Source: New York Times
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