Supreme Court: ADEA Does Not Allow Reverse Age Claims

Various kinds of discrimination claims have been subject to attempts by litigants to turn their logic on their heads. Members of groups not traditionally considered to be minorities have attempted to use legislation crafted to protect minority groups against discrimination to raise complaints about the differential treatment they have received. These cases are characterized as reverse-discrimination claims. Reverse discrimination claims have been most common in reaction to affirmative action programs and can refer to the negative impacts non-minorities may experience in the context of environments where affirmative action policies attempt to discriminate to benefit minority groups by redressing traditional underrepresentation or lack of access. More recently reverse discrimination claims have been taken in a wider range of contexts, including in relation to age.

In an opinion issued February 24, 2004, the United States Supreme Court held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA") does not prevent an employer from favoring older employees over younger employees. General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc., v. Cline, No. 02-1080 (U.S. Feb. 24, 2004).

General Dynamics and the United Auto Workers union entered into a collective bargaining agreement that eliminated the company's obligation to provide health benefits to subsequently retired employees, except as to then-current employees who were at least 50 years old. A group of employees (collectively referred to as "Cline"), who were then at least 40 but under 50, and therefore without the promise of the benefits, brought a claim against the company. Cline argued that the company violated the ADEA by discriminating against employees "because of their age." The District Court dismissed Cline's federal claim, stating no court had ever granted relief on a "reverse age discrimination" claim under the ADEA. It relied on a decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Hamilton v. Caterpillar, Inc., 966 F.2d 1226 (7th Cir. 1992), which held that "the ADEA does not protect . . . the younger against the older." The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that if Congress had meant to limit coverage of the ADEA to protect only older workers, it would have said so. The appellate court acknowledged that its decision was in conflict with cases from the Seventh Circuit and the First Circuit.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit and held the ADEA was not designed to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one. To reach this conclusion, the Court reviewed the text, structure, purpose and history of the ADEA as well as its relationship to other federal statutes. It found nothing in its review to support the Sixth Circuit's reasoning.

Rather, the Court found it to be "beyond reasonable doubt" that the ADEA was intended to protect older workers from discrimination that works to the advantage of younger workers. In reaching its decision, the Court also rejected several arguments advanced by the EEOC in favor of Cline's position. Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy dissented.

This ruling opens the door to employment practices and policies that benefit older workers, even if those policies adversely impact younger workers and should, therefore, come as good news to employers.

Article courtesy of Alexis Pheiffer of Quarles & Brady LLP.