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`Younger' workers can sue under ADEA, Sixth Circuit finds.

In a ruling that challenges standard views on age discrimination, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said workers in their 40s can pursue age discrimination claims against their employers for providing better benefits to even older workers.

In a 2-1 decision, the circuit became the first in the country to interpret the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) as benefitting what might be called the "younger old" over the "older old."

In Cline v. General Dynamics Land Systems Inc., Judge James Ryan rejected the notion embraced by the Ohio district court--and also the First, Second, and Seventh circuits--that such thinking amounted to "reverse discrimination," which the ADEA does not cover. (269 F.3d 466 (6th Cir. 2002).)

"Insofar as we are able to determine, the expression `reverse discrimination' has no ascertainable meaning under the law," the court said.

The court has generated confusion by questioning the conventional wisdom and accepted practice in age discrimination law.

Even the AARP, the largest organization representing older Americans, has stayed on the sidelines of the debate.

"I'm not sure which way to go," said Tom Osborne, senior attorney for AARP litigation. "I don't think we've ever filed something on the side of an employer in an age discrimination case. But obviously, the idea of setting two groups of older workers against each other is just distasteful."

At a time when the sagging economy is leading many companies to rethink their benefit plans, Osborne hopes the full Sixth Circuit will clarify its position in an en banc review, which the defense has requested.

"My fear is that we're going to get beat over the head with this decision by employers who want to cut back on benefits for older workers," he said. "There would always be the threat of a lawsuit. Employers may just say, `Why bother?' and decide not to provide retirement benefits to older workers at all."

The case began with a collective bargaining agreement between General Dynamics (a defense contractor) and United Auto Workers. Under the old agreement, the company provided health benefits to all retired workers. But under the new plan, which took effect in 1997, only employees 50 and older were entitled to health benefits after they retired. Dennis Cline and 195 other workers age 40 to 49 sued.

Most of the confusion in the legal community has centered on the wording of the ADEA, which aims to protect "any individual ... who [is] 40 years of age" and, more generally, "older persons" in the workplace. The Sixth Circuit's ruling played out "the wonderfully classic conflict between the plain meaning of an act's statutatory language and the thrust of its legislative history," said Louis Jacobs, an employment law professor at Ohio State University and coauthor of Litigating Age Discrimination Cases.

Ryan noted that in drafting the ADEA, Congress could have limited its scope to protect only those who are "relatively older."

"It clearly had the power and acuity to do so," he wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. overcame what he called "serious doubts about whether Congress intended that the ADEA allow persons ages 40 and over to recover for so-called reverse age discrimination," and concluded that the language of the statute supported the claim.

Dissenting, Judge Glen Williams sided with the Seventh Circuit's 1992 decision in Hamilton v. Caterpillar, ruling that the ADEA does not protect "the younger against the older." (966 F.2d 1226 (7th Cir. 1992).)

"I believe it is obvious the older a person is, the greater his or her needs become," Williams wrote.

Though the split among the courts is significant, Jacobs said, the fact that the Sixth Circuit remanded means the case will not go to the Supreme Court any time soon. He described the ruling as typical of the evolution of worker-protection laws. He noted that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, designed to safeguard minorities, has been used to protect white employees as well.

If age is inappropriate for certain decisions by employers, Jacobs said, "it would take a powerful argument for it to be appropriate for other decisions."
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Author:Brownstein, Andrew
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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