- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002


The Supreme Court backed away yesterday from a closely watched case about age discrimination.

The justices changed their minds and decided not to rule whether older employees had rights similar to those of minorities when it came to discrimination claims. The action puts off a decision that would affect perhaps negatively millions of aging workers.

The case dealt with whether a law prohibiting age bias at work would allow lawsuits that said an employer's action inordinately harmed older workers.

The high court had agreed to consider the question in December, when the country was in a recession and thousands of jobs were being cut.

It dismissed the case yesterday with a one-sentence ruling. The unanimous, unsigned decision did not explain the court's reasoning, saying only that it had acted "improvidently" when it chose to hear the case.

"If I were on the court and supported the older workers, I would like this outcome. I'd like to fight this one another day, another presidency," said Michael Evan Gold, a professor at Cornell University. "For older workers, this is better than losing it."

The case asked whether a 1967 law that barred on-the-job age bias allowed lawsuits on grounds that an employer's action had a disproportionate impact on older workers. Justices have already settled that impact lawsuits are allowed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on a worker's sex, religion or race.

A ruling could have had a broad effect. The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act covers about 70 million workers 40 or older, nearly half the work force. The law bans different treatment for older workers just because of their age.

Mr. Gold, who attended the argument, said it appeared that the court conservatives had the votes to have ruled against the fired Florida utility workers in the appeal. He said more liberal justices seemed to be seeking reasons to dismiss.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the workers' attorney about what specific employment practice was being challenged. The practice at issue is layoffs, not typical of practices that are challenged in other discrimination cases, such as written tests or physical requirements.

The case's dismissal was a defeat for about 120 former Florida Power Corp. employees who contended they were fired as part of a company effort to change its image and reduce salary and pension costs. More than 70 percent of those laid off during company reorganizations in the 1990s were 40 or older.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the workers could not pursue their lawsuit under the age-discrimination act.

Age bias was cited in more than 20 percent of 80,840 discrimination complaints filed last year against private employers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Race and sex discrimination accusations accounted for about 67 percent.

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