Workers Claiming Age Bias No Longer Must Prove Discrimination Was Intentional

Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi
Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi
No. 03-1160
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The following case is a decision of the United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) does not require employees to prove intentional age discrimination by an employer. Instead, the Court held, employees can prevail in ADEA lawsuits by showing that the employer's policy or action had a disparate impact on older workers. However, the Court also held that employers can raise an affirmative defense to such suits if they can show the challenged policy or action was based on “reasonable factors other than age.”

In this case, the City of Jackson, Mississippi gave raises to its police officers and dispatchers in order to bring their starting salaries up to the regional average. All officers received raises, but those with less than five years experience received proportionally higher raises than officers with more seniority. Most officers over 40 years old had more than five years of service. A group of older officers filed suit, claiming both that the city deliberately discriminated against them because of their age (know as a disparate treatment claim) and that the pay plan adversely affected them because of their age (known as a disparate impact claim). The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said that the disparate treatment claim was premature and that the plaintiffs were entitled to further discovery on the issue of the city's intent to discriminate based on age. But the Court of Appeals dismissed the disparate impact claim, concluding that such claims were not available under the ADEA.

The U.S. Supreme Court said that federal law, 29 U.S.C. §623(a)(2), makes it unlawful for employers “to limit, segregate, or classify … employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect … their status as an employee, because of such individual's age[.]” However, the Court said, the ADEA also narrows the coverage of the law by permitting employers to take any otherwise prohibited action “where the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age (RFOA).” Except for this RFOA provision, the ADEA language is identical to language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, except that Title VII does not include the limiting RFOA provision. The Court said, “[W]hen Congress uses the same language in two statutes having similar purposes, particularly when one is enacted shortly after the other, it is appropriate to presume that Congress intended that text to have the same meaning in both statutes.

The Court held that the RFOA language in the ADEA supports the conclusion that disparate impact claims are available to employees under the law. “Claims that stress disparate impact involve employment practices that are facially neutral in their treatment of different groups but that in fact fall more harshly on one group than another,” the Court explained.

Disparate treatment claims are difficult to prove because they involve the employer's intent or motivation. While the decision in this case makes the easier disparate impact claim available to employees, the RFOA provision gives employers an affirmative defense if they can show that the employment action taken was based on factors other than age. In this case, the Court said, the purpose of the city's decision to increase the salary of police officers with less than five years experience at a higher rate than officers with more than five years experience was to bring the starting salaries of police officers up to the regional average. Given the city's purpose to make junior officers' salaries competitive in the market, the Court said, the disparate impact of basing the raises on tenure and position, rather than age, was “unquestionably reasonable."