[EDITOR'S NOTE: Isn't this nice: Time Goes By is The Pick of the Day blog at the Guardian UK.]
In a unanimous decision (minus Chief Justice Rehnquist who did not participate because of ill health when the case was heard in November 2004), the Supreme Court Wednesday made it easier for workers older than 40 to claim age discrimination in federal court under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). They are no longer required to prove intentional bias.
This is an important decision because until now, the burden of proof on plaintiffs was set so high, many lawsuits were never brought and few that were could be won.
One employment law expert, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., who is a partner in the Chicago law firm, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, predicts a “deluge of litigation.”
“This decision is one of the most significant age discrimination rulings in decades. It will have profound implications for a wide rage of decision-making such as layoffs, reductions in force and employee benefits plans. I think the plaintiffs’ bar is rejoicing right now.”
- - Business Insurance, 30 March 2005
Associate Justice John Paul Stevens noted in the decision that employers can defend themselves by showing that there actions stemmed from “reasonable factors other than age."
The judgment involves what are called “disparate impact claims” – referring to employer policies which appear to be age-neutral, but disparately harm older workers. An example would be, as in this case, giving proportionately larger raises to employees who had worked at the company for fewer years than others. Because older workers tend to have been on the job longer than young ones, such a policy could disparately affect older workers who would get smaller raises.
Even though plaintiffs no longer need to prove that harm to an older worker was intentional, such claims may still be difficult to win and in fact, in handing down their ruling, the justices concluded that in this case [Azel Smith et al. v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, et al.] the “petitioners have not set forth a valid disparate-impact claim.”
Nevertheless, it’s not often that the little guy wins against corporations and this is a big step forward toward giving older workers who believe they have been discriminated against based on age a better chance in court.
To Dye or Not to Dye
On a related, though lighter, note, a recent report in the Miami Herald [free registration required] debates the impact of gray hair in the workplace and comes down squarely in the middle. 56-year-old Dan Vnuk thinks gray hair helps:
“It seems more acceptable today,” he said. “With the amount of baby boomers out there, I don’t think it’s imperative to look younger.”
Forty-year old Aliza Sherman Risdahl, who recently dyed her prematurely gray hair, believes anti-gray discrimination in the workplace is a fact, especially for women:
“Women who are gray are considered ‘tired’ or ‘old’ or…She’s not going to fit in,” Risdahl said. Gray-haired men, on the other hand, are seen as “seasoned,” “experienced” or “distinguished.”
It’s been eight months since I started growing out my gray hair and it’s been a relief to give up the mess, time, cost and damage caused by coloring. I also like knowing what the "real me" looks like, and if I ever suspect I was fired or not hired for the color of my hair, I hope the Supreme Court's ready for me. The headline is waiting in the wings: Graybeards Uphold Gray Hair.