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Supreme Court: ADEA Does Not Prohibit 'Reverse' Age Discrimination

Feature Story by Haime Workie - 5/13/2005

This article is part of a civilrights.org series that examines civil rights-related decisions issued during the Supreme Court's October 2003 Term.

Resolving a split in the circuits, the Supreme Court held in General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v Cline that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) does not prohibit an employer from engaging in "reverse" age discrimination, the act of favoring relatively older employees over relatively younger employees.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court cited the text, structure, purpose, and history of the ADEA, in conjunction with the relationship of the ADEA to other federal statutes, as the basis for its holding. The Court's opinion was delivered by Justice David Souter.

History of the ADEA

In 1965, Congress commissioned a report by the Secretary of Labor to study age discrimination. The report that followed concluded that arbitrary discrimination against older workers was widespread and persistent, such that federal legislation was needed to address the issue.

After extensive Capitol Hill hearings on the extent of discrimination against older workers in favor of younger workers, Congress passed into law the ADEA. The purpose of the ADEA was to protect individuals between 40 and 65 years of age from discrimination in employment.

Workers Takes Their Case to Court

In 1997, General Dynamics, pursuant to a collective-bargaining agreement, implemented a policy whereby only workers currently fifty years and older were entitled to retire with health care benefits. A group of workers (collectively referred to as Cline) over forty years of age, and thus protected by the ADEA, but under fifty years of age, then brought a claim before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discrimination under the ADEA.

The EEOC sided with Cline and unsuccessfully attempted to have the parties settle the dispute.

Cline later filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, alleging violations of the ADEA and state law. The District Court dismissed the claim of reverse age discrimination under the ADEA noting that such a claim had never been upheld previously.

However, the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling, stating that the text of the ADEA did not explicitly limit the ADEA to prohibiting discrimination against just the relatively old in favor of the relatively young, and that Congress would have clearly indicated such an intent if Congress had so desired. General Dynamics appealed the Sixth Circuit's ruling and the Court granted certiorari to resolve the dispute.

Supreme Court's Majority Opinion

Justice Souter, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Stevens, O'Connor, Ginsburg and Breyer, delivered the majority opinion of the Court. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy, also filed a dissenting opinion.

In the majority opinion, the Court noted that in the abstract, the term "age," as used by the ADEA in the phrase "discriminate... because of such individual's age," 29 U.S.C. §623(a)(1), is open to a broad interpretation because such statement does not contain any express modifier that would limit the applicability of the ADEA to prohibiting only discrimination against the relatively old in favor of the relatively young.

However, the Court rejected this more expansive reading of the term "age," stating that "the natural reading of the whole [ADEA] provision prohibiting discrimination, and in fact Congress's interpretive clues speak almost unanimously to an understanding of discrimination as directed against workers who are older than the ones getting better treatment."

In reaching the conclusion that the ADEA does not prohibit an employer from favoring relatively older workers over relatively younger workers, the Court rejected the following three arguments advanced by Cline and amicus EEOC: (1) the term "age" as used in the ADEA's prohibition of discrimination based on an "individual's age" is not limited to mean old age as displayed by the fact that other instances of the use of the term "age" in the ADEA is not limited to mean old age, (2) a colloquy on the Senate floor by Senator Yarborough, an ADEA sponsor, stating "[t]he law prohibits age being a factor in the decision to hire, as to one age over the other, whichever way [the] decision went," demonstrates that the legislative intent was to prohibit discriminate based on age regardless of whether it favors relatively younger or relatively older workers; and (3) the Court should grant deference to the EEOC's interpretation that discrimination in favor of relatively older workers over relatively younger workers is prohibited by the ADEA.

The Court stated, "social history emphatically reveals an understanding of age discrimination as aimed against the old, and the statutory reference to age discrimination in this idiomatic sense is confirmed by legislative history."

Dissenting Opinions

One dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, rejected the assertion in the majority opinion that there was not a serious question regarding the intent of the ADEA and that the EEOC's interpretation was "clearly wrong." Justice Scalia declared that "the EEOC's interpretation is neither foreclosed by the statue nor unreasonable," and he therefore dissented from the majority opinion.

Another dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Thomas and joined by Justice Kennedy, argued that the inquiry regarding the correct interpretation of the ADEA should begin and end with the text of the ADEA, if such text is unambiguous.

Justice Thomas then stated that the text of the ADEA clearly allows suits brought by the relatively young who are discriminated against in favor of the relatively old, because there is no language in the ADEA which limits the applicability of the ADEA to the relatively old.

Drawing an analogy between the ADEA and the Civil Rights Act, Justice Thomas argued that if the majority's view that the "social history" of the ADEA showed age discrimination was intended to protect only relatively older workers is accurate, then there can similarly be little doubt that the intent of the Civil Rights Act was to protect racial minorities.

However, Justice Thomas noted, the Court has previously found that whites are protected under the Civil Rights Act. Justice Thomas argued that in both instances the statutory prohibitions should be viewed to go beyond the principal evil under consideration to cover reasonably comparable evils.

Implications of General Dynamics

The Court's decision is unlikely to result in a significant shift in the way that companies handle employment matters, as the Court's decision was in line with what for many years had been perceived as the federal courts' consensus view (prior to the holding of the Sixth Circuit in General Dynamics v. Cline, which the Court reversed) that the ADEA does not protect against "reverse" age discrimination.

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