High Court Allows ‘Disparate Impact’ Age Bias Suits

March 31, 2005

Employees bringing age discrimination suits against their employers no longer need to prove that the discrimination by their employer was intentional, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

In a 5-3 decision written by Justice Paul Stevens, 84, the majority held that under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, workers could bring “disparate impact” claims that senior employees are hurt more than others by company wide policies. Such claims are typically easier to prove than intentional acts.

The decision still left employers free to treat older employees differently and argue that their policies were based on other reasonable factors, not bias. As Stevens wrote, “Age … not uncommonly has relevance to an individual’s capacity to engage in certain types of employment.”

The particular case involved senior police officers in Jackson, Miss., who argued that the city’s employment disproportionately harmed them. However, despite the ruling, the Supreme Court denied their claim, finding they failed to prove disproportionate harm.

The federal ADEA law protects an estimated 75 million workers over the age of 40 from bias in the workforce.

Disparate impact claims have been allowed in cases involving sexual, religious or racial bias for years.

The case is Smith v. City of Jackson, 03-1160.

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