Employees over the age of 40 may sue under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and claim they received less-favorable treatment than older workers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled last month in Cline v. General Dynamics Land Systems Inc., No. 00-3468 (July 22, 2002).
Dennis Cline and 195 other General Dynamics employees between the ages of 40 and 49 sued claiming that General Dynamics violated the ADEA when it entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the United Auto Workers that provided that only employees 50 years of age or older remained eligible for full health benefits upon retirement. The prior labor contract provided full health benefits to all workers who retired with 30 or more years of service.
The trial court dismissed the suit, on the grounds that the ADEA does not allow reverse discrimination claims, i.e., claims that the plaintiffs were treated adversely because of their relative youth. In a split decision, a three judge 6th Circuit panel held that the ADEA expressly prohibits denying any age protected employee an employment benefit solely because of the employee's age and that the collective bargaining agreement did exactly that.
The dissenting judge pointed to the fact that "no court in the nation has recognized a claim for age discrimination under the ADEA when brought by younger workers within the protected class arguing that they were discriminated against in favor of older workers." The panel recognized that its decision created a split within the circuit courts, as two circuits have ruled that the ADEA does not recognize claims for reverse discrimination. See Hamilton v. Caterpillar Inc., 966 F.2d 1226 (7th Cir. 1992); Schuler v. Polaroid Corp., 848 F.2d 314 (1st Cir. 1988).
This ruling runs counter to the relatively common practice of offering enhanced benefits to older workers as a voluntary retirement incentive. Unless the ruling is reversed en banc by the full Sixth Circuit, or by the United States Supreme Court, it is controlling within the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee). Neither the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland and Virginia, nor the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has addressed the issue.
Note: The Fair Employment Practices Act of Maryland, Article 49B, proscribes all discrimination on the basis of age, not only discrimination with respect to an "aged" individual and, consequently, would provide a basis for a claim of reverse age discrimination.