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Supreme Court hears age discrimination case

From Bill Mears

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Supreme Court
Justice and Rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court expressed strong skepticism Wednesday that younger workers should be allowed to sue their employers if given fewer benefits than their older colleagues, a practice commonly known as reverse age discrimination.

The case, heard by the justices Wednesday, could have broad financial implications for companies and competing groups of so-called "baby boomer" workers approaching retirement age.

More than a third of the U.S. workforce is older than 45. Many economists worry about the financial drain in coming years when millions of baby boomers retire from full-time work.

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers older than 40. Most claims under the law involve an older worker alleging mistreatment or favoritism benefiting a much younger worker.

But in a twist on the law, younger workers in this protected class -- those older than 40 -- claim they are getting a worse deal than older workers in the same class.

The case originates from General Dynamics Land Systems, which makes combat vehicles for the military in its Ohio plant.

Until 1997, General Dynamics employees with 30 years' seniority had enjoyed full health benefits upon their retirement. But then a collective bargaining agreement changed the rules and limited full benefits to workers with full seniority who were at least 50 years of age when the deal was struck.

A group of about 200 workers in their 40s sued, claiming they are protected by the age discrimination law and that the company "pulled the rug out" from under them. They say they were promised benefits when they began working that were later taken away.

Lower courts have split on whether this type of reverse age discrimination exists under the law.

In arguments Wednesday, the justices questioned whether Congress, in passing the anti-discrimination law, sought to protect younger as well as older workers over age 40, when their benefits differ.

Mark Biggerman, representing the excluded workers, argued that Congress did intend to protect the younger workers.

"Congress intended to make age neutral," Biggerman said. "It's about whether an individual loses out because of age."

But Justice Antonin Scalia called that a "fanciful version" of what Congress intended.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quickly followed up, adding that it is common for companies to offer greater benefits to workers over age 50. Such "special accommodations," she said, can include flex time, reduced hours and exemptions from certain physical requirements of the job.

"The older you get, the more problems you have," Ginsburg said. "And the statute says yes, you can get these [employee] benefits."

Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to agree, but worried such discretion by companies would quickly lead to courts becoming "employment boards," forced to hear every claim by a worker in his 40s of reverse discrimination.

"No company could bend over to help any worker over 40," he added.

Justice Department attorney Paul Clement defended the younger workers and the power of federal regulators to handle such discrimination claims.

Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed somewhat sympathetic to the overall problems faced by people in their 40s who lose out on benefits enjoyed by their older co-workers.

"This is hurtful," Kennedy said. "When employees find discrimination in their company, it can hurt."

A ruling in the case is expected sometime early next year.

The case is General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline (02-1080).

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