April 2, 1996 in Nation/World

High Court Backs Case Of Age Bias Ruling Makes It Easier For Workers To Sue No Matter How Old Their Replacement

Jan Crawford Greenburg Chicago Tribune
 

A year after James O’Connor earned the highest bonus paid by his company for top sales, his boss told him he was “too damn old for this work.”

The alleged comments weren’t the first about his age, O’Connor said, nor were they the last. Earlier, while watching a televised golf tournament, O’Connor’s boss allegedly had told him he was “too old” to play 18 holes for five days straight.

The same boss then allegedly said it was time to get “some young blood in the company.” Two days later, O’Connor, then 56, was fired and replaced by a 40-year-old employee.

On Monday, almost six years later, the North Carolina man won a big victory in his fight to hold the company accountable for age discrimination - and one that will affect workers in his situation nationwide.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court said companies may be violating a federal age discrimination law if they replace workers 40 and older with other workers also 40 and older.

The decision reversed a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., which had ruled that the company couldn’t be liable under the federal statute because it replaced O’Connor with an employee who, though younger, was still within the over-40 age class protected by the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Legal experts said the ruling, which revives O’Connor’s lawsuit, will make it easier for employees to pursue age discrimination claims.

“It makes it easier to force the employer to explain why they let you go,” said George Daly of Charlotte, N.C., O’Connor’s lawyer. “If you’re qualified and over 40 and you’re let go, basically you’re entitled to an explanation.”

Others also noted that the ruling acts as interesting socio-economic commentary, of sorts, because it implicitly recognizes an aging work force where 40 isn’t considered as “old” as it was in 1967, when the age discrimination law was implemented.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more of these type of cases, as baby boomers continue in the workforce,” said Jay Krupin, a Washington labor lawyer. “You’re going to find more people replaced by people who are over 40. In 1967, I don’t think you’d think of replacing a person by someone over 40.”

The company argued that because the act expressly protects all workers over 40, it didn’t discriminate by replacing a fired worker with one also protected by the law.

In general, to win in a discrimination lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove several elements, including that he or she was replaced by someone outside the protected class, say, for example, a white worker or a male.

To the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, that legal tenet meant that O’Connor must show he was replaced by a worker outside the over-40 protected class.

Appeals courts in 10 other federal circuits have ruled differently, holding that over-40 workers could sue under the act so long as they were replaced by someone younger.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, sided with those courts, saying it was irrelevant whether the replacement worker was in the class protected by the anti-discrimination law.

“The fact that one person in the protected class has lost out to another person in the protected class is … irrelevant, so long as he has lost out because of his age,” Scalia wrote for the court.

O’Connor had worked since 1978 for the Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., a Charlotte-based supplier of vending machines and cafeteria supplies. In 1989, as a sales manager, he earned a $37,000 bonus, the company’s highest award for the level of profits generated.

The next year, part of his sales territory went to a younger co-worker. The company said O’Connor took too long to respond to problem accounts. But O’Connor said it was age discrimination. He also said it was around this time that his boss, Ed Williams, started making comments about his age.

Krupin said the decision essentially raises the threshold for age discrimination suits, because it recognizes that workers over 40 “aren’t being viewed as old anymore.”

xxxx IN OTHER ACTION Also Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court: Said a Georgia man sentenced to death could pursue a last-minute appeal. The man waited until just before his scheduled execution to file his first federal appeal, but a federal appeals court in Atlanta refused to consider it, saying he didn’t have a good reason for waiting so long. The man said he wanted to delay his execution in hopes that the state would allow lethal injection, enabling him to donate his organs. The high court said the delay and the man’s motive weren’t proper reasons for denying him a hearing. Agreed to decide whether indigent people contesting the termination of their parental rights can be prevented from filing an appeal where they cannot afford the court fees. Agreed to review a voting-rights case in Monterey County, Calif., challenging the election of municipal judges.

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