U.S. Supreme Court Expands Reach of Age Discrimination in Employment Act

March 2005

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, a case involving “disparate impact” claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).  The Court resolved a dispute among the Federal Courts of Appeal and ruled that the ADEA expressly authorizes recovery without proof of intentional discrimination.  This means that workers over the age of 40 can sue employers for practices that merely have the effect of treating older workers worse than younger ones.  Before this ruling, many courts had held that such claims were not permitted.  Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has always endorsed disparate impact claims in age bias cases.

The Court did limit its ruling in a way that distinguishes the ADEA from other types of discrimination.  The ADEA contains a unique provision allowing for employers to take action based on “reasonable factors other than age.”  This provision makes a disparate impact claim more difficult than the typical claim under Title VII.  Additionally, the Court noted that employees must still identify a specific test, requirement, or practice that has an adverse impact on older workers, if their claims are to succeed.  Proving that there is a disparate impact in the abstract is not sufficient. 

One area where this decision may have the greatest impact is in reduction in force cases.  Many employers, when forced to reduce their workforce, will rank the potentially affected employees using a variety of factors.  Now, it will be particularly important to analyze those factors to prevent a disparate impact on older workers.  This is particularly true of factors like computer skills, potential for promotion, education, and ability to relocate.

Frost Brown Todd LLC expects that this decision will change the landscape of age discrimination law.  It should certainly change the way employers think about their employment practices.  Please contact one of our labor and employment attorneys if you have questions about how the ruling affects your business. 

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