The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) does not prohibit employers from benefiting older workers over younger ones- so-called reverse age discrimination.
In General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, the plaintiffs (current and former employees of the defendant) sued for age discrimination based on changes to their collective bargaining agreement that favored older employees. The new agreement provided for continued retirement health benefits for employees then over 50 years of age but eliminated that benefit for all other employees. The plaintiffs were between the ages of 40 and 50 and, therefore, protected by the ADEA. They were denied the benefits available only to workers over the age of 50, and they sued under the ADEA and state law, claiming reverse age discrimination. The District Court in Ohiodismissed the reverse age discrimination claim, finding that the ADEA does not prohibit discrimination against younger employees. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, relying on the "plain meaning" of the statute and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) interpretative regulation on the issue.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision clearly states that the ADEA does not recognize such reverse discrimination claims (i.e., where a worker over 40 claims disparate treatment as compared with a coworker older than him/herself). The majority rested its decision on its "understanding that the text, structure, and history point to the ADEA as a remedy for unfair preference based on relative youth, leaving complaints of the relatively young outside the statutory concern." In so doing, the majority rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments regarding the plain meaning of the word "age," the coverage of the statute as interpreted by one of its sponsors in the U.S. Congress and deference to the EEOC’s interpretation of the statute. The Court discounted comments by one of the act’s sponsors indicating his intention that the ADEA encompass this type of reverse discrimination claim - "[e]ven from a sponsor, a single outlying statement cannot stand against a tide of context and history, not to mention 30 years of judicial interpretation producing no apparent legislative qualms." Finally, the Court refused to defer to the authority of the EEOC where it found that agency’s interpretation to be "clearly wrong."
Two dissents accompanied the majority opinion. Justice Scalia dissented, arguing that deference is in fact owed to the EEOC regulation in question because its interpretation of the ADEA is reasonable. Justice Thomas, writing more extensively and joined by Justice Kennedy, rejected what he deemed to be a new tool of statutory interpretation used by the majority- the "social history" analysis. Thomas argued that the plain text of the statute allowed for a reverse discrimination claim based on an interpretation of the word "age" to mean "chronological age" rather than "old age." Thomas also argued for deference to the EEOC interpretation of the statute because even if it is not the best interpretation (although Thomas believes it is), the Court ought to defer to it because it is not wholly unreasonable.
Although most federal circuit courts had declined to recognize reverse discrimination claims under the ADEA, until Cline, the validity of such claims remained an open question. Uncertainty in this area had become a particular problem with respect to the design and administration of employee benefit programs, in which older employees are often afforded more attractive benefits than younger employees. In Cline, however, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly and decisively. Employers will not incur liability under the ADEA by benefiting older workers over younger workers, even where those younger workers otherwise fall within the protection of the ADEA because they are over 40 years old.
Employers should note that the Cline decision only governs the federal ADEA. States may recognize reverse discrimination claims under their age discrimination laws. For example, New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination protects younger employees. Accordingly, employers should consult counsel to assess potential state-law implications of employment decisions.