- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

More than 1,700 retired state and local public-safety officers in California won an estimated $250 million in benefits in an age discrimination case against the state, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced yesterday.

"This is the largest [settlement] in the history of the commission," said Linda Li, a spokeswoman for the commission, a government panel that enforces employment law.

The case sends a signal to states that the commission will enforce federal anti-discrimination laws, said David Offen-Brown, a senior trial attorney with the commission's San Francisco office.

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Individuals cannot sue states for damages, so in employment discrimination cases the commission has to pursue them, Mr. Offen-Brown said.

In the California case, seven disabled public-safety retirees filed a lawsuit in 1995 against the California Public Employees' Retirement System (Calpers), claiming age discrimination.

Calpers was enforcing a California law that reduced disability retirement benefits in proportion to an employee's age at the time he or she was hired.

One of the case's original plaintiffs, for example, joined a local police force at age 43 and received a disability payment that was 32 percent of his salary after he suffered permanently disabling injuries.

Had he joined the force at age 30 or younger, he would have received half of his salary as a disability benefit.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took up the age discrimination case in 2000, and Calpers settled yesterday.

The California retirement system was the only state system open to such specific age discrimination charges, commission officials said.

"The overall significance is that state governments know that the EEOC will continue to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws on a selective basis," Mr. Offen-Brown said.

"Age discrimination cases will continue to receive close scrutiny."

Age discrimination complaints represented more than 25 percent of cases handled by the commission last year. It is a growing area for complaints, the commission said.

Yesterday's settlement provides about $50 million to the state and local public-safety officers for reduced disability benefits in the past. That amount must be paid by July 1.

In addition, Calpers will adjust future payments to eliminate the age-related disparity, calculated at about $200 million to be paid out during the remainder of the officers' lifetimes.

"The commission intervened in this case in the public interest to protect the rights of these individuals and to obtain monetary relief," William R. Tamayo, regional attorney for the commission's San Francisco district office, said in a statement.

"Recent Supreme Court rulings preclude individuals from recovering monetary relief from state governments for age bias. Thus, the EEOC was the sole entity available to obtain justice for these public safety officers who were injured in the line of duty," the statement said.

Calpers called the settlement "a fair resolution" and said it does not jeopardize the fund.

"I am pleased that we were able to work together to come up with a fair resolution which conforms with the requirements of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act," Peter Mixon, Calpers general counsel, said in a statement.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, based in Washington, coordinates all federal equal-employment-opportunity regulations, practices, and policies.

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