Prejudicial treatment or denial of rights based on age.
As the baby boom generation, the largest demographic group in U.S. history, reached middle age and looked toward retirement, laws governing the treatment of older U.S. citizens took on greater importance than ever before. Between 1970 and 1991, the number of workers over the age of 40 in the U.S. workforce rose from 39,689,000 to 53,940,000. It is no surprise, then, that major developments, both legislative and judicial, occurred in the area of age discrimination in employment.
Congress outlawed discrimination by employers against employees or applicants over the age of 40, with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) (29 U.S.C.A. § 621 et seq.). Amendments to the act in 1974, 1978, and 1986 (29 U.S.C.A. § 623 et seq.) raised and then eliminated the mandatory retirement age for most workers and extended the act's coverage to most employers. The ADEA does permit employers to set maximum age limits for employees if the employer can show that age is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) and is reasonably necessary for the operation of the business. Although the ADEA did not originally apply to government employers, Congress extended the act to cover federal, state, and local governments in 1974. However, it no longer applies to state governments.
The EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION (EEOC) is charged with enforcing the ADEA. Complainants must first file a claim with the EEOC or their state's employment or HUMAN RIGHTS commission before pursuing a lawsuit. The EEOC attempts to resolve the dispute through voluntary compliance on the part of the employer, conciliation, or other persuasive measures. If the EEOC decides to bring an action against the employer, the employee's right to sue is extinguished. However, the employee need not exhaust his or her administrative remedies?that is, wait for a final determination from the EEOC?before filing suit.
A number of landmark cases have interpreted the ADEA since its passage. Western Air Lines v. Criswell, 472 U.S. 400, 105 S. Ct. 2743, 86L. Ed. 2d 321 (1985), set out the guidelines for defending an age limit based on the BFOQ exception. Western required flight engineers, who are members of the flight crew but generally do not operate flight controls, to retire at age 60. When this policy was challenged, the airline maintained that the age limit was a BFOQ necessary to ensure safety. The Supreme Court disagreed, and in a unanimous decision announced a two-pronged test to be applied when evaluating a BFOQ based on safety: (1) whether the age limit is reasonably necessary to the overriding
interest in public safety; and (2) whether the employer is justified in applying the age limit to all employees rather than deciding each case on an individual basis.
In another case the same year, the Supreme Court found TWA guilty of age discrimination for refusing to transfer pilots to the position of flight engineer after they reached age 60, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) mandatory retirement age for pilots (Trans World Airlines v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 105 S. Ct. 613, 83 L. Ed. 2d 523 ). TWA had allowed younger pilots who had become disabled to transfer automatically to the position of flight engineer, but did not allow pilots and copilots past the age of 60 to do the same. The Court held that the airline must give the same opportunity to retiring pilots and copilots as it had given to younger disabled pilots. However, the Court denied the pilots' request for double damages, which are allowed in cases of "willful violation" of the ADEA, stating that a violation is willful only if the employer knew that its conduct was prohibited by the ADEA or showed a "reckless disregard" for whether the act applied.
Older workers seeking redress under the ADEA received mixed opinions in 1989. Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio v. Betts, 492 U.S. 158, 109 S. Ct. 2854, 106 L. Ed. 2d 134 (1989), overturned a series of courts of appeals decisions as well as EEOC and LABOR DEPARTMENT regulations that required employers to justify any age-based distinctions in employee benefit plans by showing a "substantial business purpose." Betts shifted the BURDEN OF PROOF to the plaintiff to show that the disputed plan was a "subterfuge" for discrimination.
Congressional response to Betts was a compromise between employee advocates and business interests. A 1990 amendment to the ADEA, known as the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA) (29 U.S.C.A. § 626), prohibits discrimination against older employees in the provision of fringe benefits unless the benefit differences are due to age-based differences in cost.
Shortly after the Betts decision, the Supreme Court relaxed the procedural rules governing class actions alleging age discrimination, in Hoffmann-LaRoche v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 110S. Ct. 482, 107 L. Ed. 2d 480 (1989). The Sperling decision made it easier for plaintiffs to join a CLASS ACTION suit against an employer after the suit has been filed.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, businesses trying to survive in a sluggish economy began reducing their workforces, a practice known as downsizing. When layoffs or early retirements affected older workers disproportionately, age discrimination claims escalated.
Many companies offered attractive earlyretirement packages in return for an employee's waiver of rights to any legal claims. During the 1980s, courts generally allowed such waivers as long as the employee's acceptance was knowing and voluntary and the employee received valuable consideration in return. In Cirillo v. Arco Chemical Co., 862 F.2d 448 (1988), for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that because the plaintiff had knowingly and voluntarily signed a waiver of his right to sue, and in return had received a higher-than-average severance package, the waiver did not violate the ADEA. Likewise, in Lancaster v. Buerkle Buick Honda Co., 809 F.2d 539, cert. denied, 482 U.S. 928, 107 S. Ct. 3212, 96 L. Ed. 2d 699 (1987), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that the plaintiff, by virtue of his years of business experience, was well equipped to understand the waiver he signed. Similar reasoning prevailed in Runyan v. National Cash Register Corp., 787 F.2d 1039 (6th
Cir. 1986) (en banc), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 850, 107 S.Ct. 178, 93 L. Ed. 2d 114 (1986), where the court upheld a waiver because the employee who signed it...