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March 30, 2005
Supreme Court Sets Reach of Age-Bias Law

The Supreme Court has ruled 5-3 that workers 40 and older can file lawsuits claiming an employer's policy--while neutral on its face--has a disproportionate adverse effect on them, Reuters reports.

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Lower courts had been divided on the issue of whether the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act allows disparate-impact claims. In disparate-impact claims, plaintiffs argue that the consequences of an employer's policy or practice are discriminatory rather than argue that the motives behind it are discriminatory.

While the Supreme Court ruled that such claims are allowed under ADEA, it said the plaintiffs in the specific case before it failed to prove that they had a valid disparate-impact claim.

In the case, 30 police officers and dispatchers over age 40 in Jackson, Mississippi, said the city's pay policy was discriminatory because it gave workers with five or fewer years of tenure proportionately larger wage increases than workers with more seniority.

The city argued that the policy was implemented to remain competitive with surrounding communities in attracting and retaining officers.

"The city's decision to grant a larger raise to lower echelon employees for the purpose of bringing salaries in line with that of surrounding police forces was a decision based on a 'reasonable factor other than age' that responded to the city's legitimate goal of retaining police officers," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

The Bloomberg news service reports that in the ruling, the court said ADEA has a narrower scope for disparate-impact claims than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has for disparate-impact claims in race- and gender-bias cases.

"Except for the substitution of 'age' for 'race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,' the language of ADEA and Title VII is identical. Unlike Title VII, however, ADEA significantly narrows its coverage by permitting any 'otherwise prohibited' action 'where the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age'" wrote Stevens.


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