Question

I work for a public entity and am eligible to retire at age 55. My employer refuses to provide additional training for employees who are 55 and over because they are eligible for retirement and the employer does not want to spend more money on people who might be leaving soon. I plan to work until I am at least 65 or 70, and I want to have the additional training. Can my employer prevent me from getting it because of my age?

Answer:

Your question is actually quite timely. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that workers who are 40 and older may file claims for age discrimination against their employers even if their employer never intended for company policy to favor younger workers. Specifically, the Court held that older workers can sue in federal court for claims of “disparate-impact”—the loss of wages or benefits enjoyed by younger employees—under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). This means that employers can now be held liable for age discrimination against older workers even if their policies were not meant to be discriminatory.

The case of Smith v. City of Jackson was brought by 30 senior police and public safety officers in Jackson, Mississippi, who were unhappy with the City’s policy of giving larger raises to employees with less than five years of service. These older employees argued that the policy discriminated against employees over the age of 40, who typically had been employed for more than five years and therefore did not qualify for the larger raises. While the Court agreed that the employees could bring a case claiming that the policy had a disparate impact on them due to their age, it also found that the employees had not actually been harmed by the policy of rewarding younger workers.

The Court’s decision was based on the fact that the City’s policy—which was intended to make junior officers’ salaries competitive with those of other police forces—was based on a “reasonable factor other than age” and had the legitimate goal of retaining police officers. This, combined with the employees’ failure to specifically identify the harm they had suffered, formed the basis for the Court’s rejection of the employees’ disparate-impact claim.

Even though the employees in the Smith case were unsuccessful in making their argument, the case is still significant. Based on this decision, older employees now have a new avenue open to them in bringing age discrimination claims against their employers. To make a disparate-impact claim under the ADEA, employees must identify an age-based policy or practice by their employer that results in some form of inequality. The employees do not need to show that their employer intended for its policy to be discriminatory, but simply that they have been adversely affected by the policy because of their age.

However, the case also states that employers are sometimes within their rights to treat older workers differently. If an employer has a legitimate reason, other than age, for treating its employees differently, then it may not be guilty of discrimination after all. Your employer’s desire to maximize its training investment by refusing to train retirement-aged employees could be viewed as a reasonable basis for a policy that might otherwise appear discriminatory.

The full text of the Supreme Court”s opinion can be found on-line at the following web address:
http://wid.ap.org/documents/scotus/050330smith.pdf .
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