- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that employers can give older workers better benefits than younger workers without committing age discrimination.

The 6-3rulingresulted from a lawsuit by employees in their 40s at Falls Church defense contractor General Dynamics Corp. who were angered when their retirement health benefits were cut while workers at least 50 years old were allowed to keep them.

The younger workers argued the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibited all employment age bias, even when it favored older workers. The age-bias law protects workers older than 40 from discrimination in hiring, pay or work conditions.

The Supreme Court said the law protects older workers from preferential treatment for younger workers, but it does not protect the younger workers.

“In a world where younger is better, talk about discrimination because of age is naturally understood to refer to discrimination against the older. … The enemy of 40 is 30, not 50,” Justice David H. Souter, wrote for the majority.

About 70 million U.S. workers are 40 or older, roughly half the nation’s work force.

The law “forbids discriminatory preference of the young over the old,” JusticeSouter wrote in the decision. “The question in this case is whether it also prohibits favoring the old over the young. We hold it does not.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said the law, “clearly allows for suits brought by the relatively young when discriminated against in favor of the relatively old.”

He accused the majority of “interpretive sleight of hand.”

Some business groups warned that if the court had interpreted the law differently, employers would be sued by workers over 40 anytime they gave the most senior workers preferential benefits.

“We’re very pleased with the decision,” Kendell Pease, spokesman for General Dynamics, told Bloomberg News. “What more can you say after the Supreme Court rules in your favor? We’re moving on.”

Among the groups that supported the company’s position was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO national labor federation and the Society for Human Resource Management.

Thefederal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hadargued the law was “crystal clear” in protecting people over 40 from all discrimination, even when it favored the most senior workers.

The decision reverses an appellate court ruling against General Dynamics, maker of the Abrams tank, other combat vehicles and business jets.

“We’re pleased with the court’s interpretation,” said Laurie McCann, senior lawyer for AARP, an advocacy group for senior citizens. “In this country, it’s older workers who almost always get the shorter end of the stick.”

About 200 General Dynamics workers in Ohio and Pennsylvania sued after the company said in 1997 it would discontinue retirement health benefits to union workers younger than 50. Among them was Dennis Cline, a materials driver at the company’s Land Systems tank plant in Lima, Ohio.

“Corporations can now rob benefits from all but their oldest employees,” Mr. Cline said after the Supreme Court ruling. “This is going to create a medical crisis with the baby boomers and those following.”

General Dynamics’ stock fell 2 percent yesterday to $91.58 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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