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EEO Court Decisions

Supreme Court Issues Age Discrimination Ruling

- By HOPE YEN, Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

(03-30) 20:03 PST WASHINGTON (AP) --

The Supreme Court expanded job protections for roughly half the nation's work force Wednesday, ruling that federal law allows people 40 and over to file age bias claims over salary and hiring even if employers never intended any harm.

The decision eases the legal threshold for about 75 million middle-aged and older people to contend in court that a policy has a disproportionately hurtful effect on them.

On the other hand, the ruling makes clear employers still will prevail if they can cite a reasonable explanation for their policies, such as cost-cutting.

The decision was applauded by advocates for older workers. Business and municipal groups expressed disappointment, saying it could create costly additional litigation.

The case was brought by older police officers in Jackson, Miss., who contended a city policy favored younger colleagues. The court unanimously rejected their appeal but in a 5-3 vote ruled they were entitled to pursue the lawsuit.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in the decision, which was heard in November when he was being treated for thyroid cancer.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, cited the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act. He said it was meant to allow the same type of legal challenges for older workers that minorities and women can make under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But he also said the same law stipulates employers are within their rights to sometimes treat older workers differently.

"Age ... not uncommonly has relevance to an individual's capacity to engage in certain types of employment," wrote Stevens, who at 84 is the court's oldest member.

He was joined by other members of the court's liberal wing — David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice Antonin Scalia filed a separate opinion, saying "disparate impact" claims alleging a hurtful effect are acceptable based on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's interpretation of the congressional statute, not the majority opinion's "independent determination" of the law.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and two others disagreed, saying the age discrimination act bars the impact claims. She said Congress never intended such lawsuits because employers should have flexibility to make business decisions that might unintentionally harm older workers.

"There often is a correlation between an individual's age and her ability to perform her job," O'Connor wrote. "That is to be expected, for physical ability generally declines with age, and in some cases, so does mental capacity."

She was joined by Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

"This is a major boost for the fight to eliminate age discrimination in the workplace. Evidence that an employer is intentionally out to get older workers is very hard to come by," said Laurie McCann, senior attorney for AARP, the advocacy group for people 50 and over.

"It is a significant win for older workers who lack smoking gun evidence of age discrimination," said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who represented the police officers. "It also reminds employers to be conscious of the effects of their policies."

But David Parkhurst, attorney for the National League of Cities, called the ruling a disappointment for cash-strapped governments as they seek ways to legitimately cut costs.

Potential budget savings could be lost, he said, "if cities have to extend more time and money for litigation costs."

In the Mississippi case, 30 Jackson officers and dispatchers sued over a pay performance plan they said gave substantially larger pay raises to employees with five or fewer years of tenure — a plan they said would as a result have an unfavorable impact on employees 40 and over.

Lower courts threw out the lawsuit, reasoning that impact claims were barred.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that while police officers can get into court to prove unfavorable impact, they failed to do so here. The city's explanation that it was trying to make salaries for junior officers more competitive with similar positions was reasonable, the court said.

Employers defending themselves from lawsuits charging sex or race discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts have a tougher standard of showing "business necessity" rather than "reasonableness" to prevail at trial.

"The city's decision to grant a larger raise to lower echelon employees for the purpose of bringing salaries in line with that of surrounding police forces was a decision based on a 'reasonable factor other than age' that responded to the city's legitimate goal of retaining police officers," Stevens wrote.

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

_On the Net:

The opinion in Smith v. City of Jackson is available at:







Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action

In two cases involving the University of Michigan's admissions policies, the court ruled that colleges may use race as a factor, within limits.

By James Romoser
Columbia Daily Spectator News Editor

In two landmark decisions on Monday, the United States Supreme Court endorsed the principles of diversity and affirmative action in higher education but limited the ways that those principles can be applied in college admissions procedures.

The court's rulings, and the rationale set forth in the majority opinions, represent a philosophical victory for supporters of affirmative action, including University President Lee Bollinger, who was the lead defendant in the two cases and has championed diversity as an important educational goal.

"I think there's no other way to look at this than as a very significant victory for education and for civil rights," Bollinger said on Monday.

The two cases concerned the admissions policies of the University of Michigan's law school and undergraduate college. By a 5-to-4 margin, the court upheld the policy of the law school, which attempts to admit a "critical mass" of minority students each year.

The court, however, invalidated Michigan's undergraduate policy by a 6-3 margin, saying it is too formulaic in its assignment of a fixed number of points to underrepresented minority applicants.

In her majority opinion for Grutter v. Bollinger, the law school case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that "student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions."

But an affirmative action program, to be constitutional, must be "a narrowly tailored plan," wrote O'Connor, who was widely considered to be the swing vote on a divided court. "Truly individualized consideration demands that race be used in a flexible, nonmechanical way," she continued.

The court found that Michigan's law school policy met that test, but that the point-based undergraduate program did not. Applicants to Michigan's undergraduate college receive points based on a number of characteristics, including academic achievement, in-state residency, and minority status.

In the majority opinion for Gratz v. Bollinger, the undergraduate case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the undergraduate program violates the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. "The university's policy, which automatically distributes 20 points, or one-fifth of the points needed to guarantee admission, to every single 'underrepresented minority' applicant solely because of race, is not narrowly tailored to achieve the interest in educational diversity that respondents claim justifies their program," he wrote.

Monday's rulings represent a significant endorsement of the general practice of affirmative action, allaying the fears of many in higher education that the court would find affirmative action unconstitutional. But at the same time, the court tempered its support of affirmative action by declaring that it must be used carefully.

Michigan's undergraduate school--and other large universities, like Ohio State University, which use similar point-based admissions policies--will now need to revise their procedures for evaluating applicants. Indeed, virtually all colleges now have legal guidelines for what types of racial consideration are constitutionally acceptable. The admissions policies of Columbia and other Ivy League schools seem to meet the court's requirement that affirmative action policies be "individualized."

But perhaps the most fervent message in the court's decisions was its strong endorsement of the goal of diversity.

"Access to legal education (and thus the legal profession) must be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity," O'Connor wrote in her law school opinion, "so that all members of our heterogeneous society may participate in the educational institutions that provide the training and education necessary to succeed in America."

Bollinger himself has portrayed affirmative action as an instrument of integration, often equating it with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools.

By asserting in the law school ruling that diversity represents a compelling state interest, the court's majority went considerably further than the 1978 Bakke decision, the last time the court considered the use of race in admissions. In the Bakke case, the court outlawed quota systems but ruled that race may be considered as a factor in admissions programs. At the time, however, only one justice, Lewis Powell, Jr., argued that achieving diversity is a compelling state interest.

Both of Monday's rulings were divided decisions, and dissenting justices cited various reasons for disagreeing with the majority opinions. In the main dissenting opinion in the law school case, Rehnquist argued that the law school's policy, like the undergraduate policy, was not "narrowly tailored" enough.

But an additional dissenting opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and signed by Justice Antonin Scalia, criticized the law school's policy on broader grounds, hinting that all affirmative action programs constitute racial discrimination. "A university may not maintain a high admission standard and grant exemptions to favored races," Thomas wrote. "The law school, of its own choosing, and for its own purposes, maintains an exclusionary admissions system that it knows produces racially disproportionate results."

In her dissenting opinion in the undergraduate case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used similarly broad language regarding race to make the opposite point. "The racial and ethnic groups to which the college accords special consideration (African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans) historically have been relegated to inferior status by law and social practice; their members continue to experience class-based discrimination to this day," Ginsburg wrote. She continued, "The stain of generations of racial oppression is still visible in our society, and the determination to hasten its removal remains vital."

Even as the majority strongly supported affirmative action in principle, the court acknowledged that race-based practices would not always be necessary. In her majority opinion in the law school case, O'Connor wrote that affirmative action would probably not be needed in two and a half decades--a sentiment echoed in other justices' written opinions.

"It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity in the context of public higher education," O'Connor wrote. "Since that time, the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

Until that day, however, the debate over affirmative action promises to rage on, both in and out of the courts.

"The issue continues to be very controversial," Bollinger said, adding, "Realistically, one has to recognize that the case needs to be made again and again."

Ben Casselman contributed to this article.

From Columbia Daily Spectator; Published June 23, 2003

Other University of Michigan Decision    Hot Links:

"Saving Affirmative Action"  http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0327/guinier.php

"Supreme Court Turns Back Attack on Affirmative Action"  http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/HL0307/S00057.htm




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Last modified: March 09, 2009