High Court Takes Up Age Discrimination

supreme court graphic scotus
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether older people may use a civil rights lawsuit to claim that company layoffs targeted them more heavily than younger workers.

The court said it will hear an appeal from fired Florida utility workers who claim that company layoffs fell disproportionately on older workers.

The case involves a class-action lawsuit filed by former Florida Power employees who were 40 or older when fired as part of company reorganizations in the early 1990s. The workers claim they were fired because the company wanted to change its image and reduce its costs for salaries and pensions. More than 70 percent of the laid-off workers were 40 or older, the suit claimed.

In other action, the justices:

  • Refused to interfere with a court-ordered housing desegregation plan for Yonkers, N.Y. The action leaves intact the latest attempt to integrate the city's neighborhoods. The city argued that the plan improperly favored minorities.

  • Agreed to decide if states have gone too far in efforts to keep politics out of judicial elections. The court will review a challenge to Minnesota campaign rules that ban candidates for judgeships from speaking at political events or discussing their views on contested legal subjects.

  • Rejected pleas from consumer groups and refused to consider reinstating government restrictions on the number of subscribers that cable companies can have.

    Federal appeals courts are divided on the question of whether employees may claim age discrimination based on the premise that an employer's actions had a "disparate impact" on older workers.

    Other civil rights lawsuits, such as those alleging discrimination in housing or hiring and promotion, frequently use the same tactic. Civil rights lawyers say the suits are common because it is easier to show the effects of discrimination on a certain group than it is to prove that the discrimination was intentional from the start.

    In April, the Supreme Court limited similar lawsuits under the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. In writing that law, Congress did not expressly grant the right to claim that state policies had an unfair, discriminatory effect on minorities, the court said.

    It is a given that people have the right to sue over alleged intentional, state-sponsored discrimination, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in that 5-4 decision.

    What they do not have the right to do, Scalia said, is challenge state decisions such as Alabama's policy of offering driver's tests only in English on the theory that such requirements affect minorities more than other applicants.

    In the Florida case, the question for the Supreme Court is whether such suits are allowed under the 1967 law forbidding on-the-job discrimination based on age.

    Lawyers for the utility acknowledged the split among the lower courts, but urged the Supreme Court to pass up this opportunity to resolve the conflict. The case "lacks the clar and cogent set of facts needed" for the high court's review, the utility claimed.

    More than 100 former Florida Power employees sued in federal court under the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The case never reached trial, because the court said it needed clarification on whether the former employees could bring such a suit.

    The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that the age discrimination law did not provide for this kind of suit.

    In the Yonkers case, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had approved the latest desegregation plan last January, some 16 years after a federal judge concluded that Yonkers intentionally segregated its housing and public schools.

    The first court-ordered desegregation plan was approved in 1986, and the current case challenges the latest revision.

    The Justice Department and the Yonkers branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supported the newest plan. They argued that the housing preferences afforded minorities were necessary because the race-neutral plan wasn't working.

    The high court's action was taken without comment.

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