High Court Clarifies Employers' Burden in Age Discrimination Claims

The U.S. Supreme Court issued major age discrimination decisions today. The court handed a defeat to the EEOC and a Kentucky retiree from a sheriff's department who challenged the state's failure to increase his pension when he became disabled after retiring, but it sided in a second decision with a worker who challenged his dismissal from KAPL Inc., which operates the federal government's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. The crux of this ruling, in Meacham, et al. v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, is that employers, not employees, bear the burden of demonstrating a layoff was based on reasonable factors other than age.

The Meacham decision was 7-1, while the Kentucky case -- Kentucky Retirement Systems, et al. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was a 5-4 decision. Justice David Souter, writing for the Meacham majority, said employer groups should not fear the decision will spur a flood of age discrimination cases for which employers must produce lots of evidence, incurring a heavy expense. "It will be mainly in cases where the reasonableness of the non-age factor is obscure for some reason, that the employer will have more evidence to reveal and more convincing to do going from [evidence] production to persuasion [of the judge]," Souter wrote.

The plaintiff in the Meacham case, Clifford B. Meacham, was one of 31 workers laid off by KAPL for fiscal year 1996 after managers scored employees for "performance," "flexibility," and "critical skills." Thirty of the 31 were at least 40 years old, and 28 of them sued, only to lose when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the employees had the burden to show the non-age factor was unreasonable.

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