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Suggesting that, maybe, youth isn’t always wasted on the young, a federal appeals court on July 22 told a class of 196 defense-contractor employees, ages 40 to 49, that they can pursue a claim that they faced discrimination at work because they simply weren’t old enough. Cline v. General Dynamics Land Systems Inc., No. 00-3468. In a case it described as “outside the typical,” the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an Ohio federal court finding that the plaintiffs’ complaints about minimum age requirements for retiree health benefits amounted to “reverse discrimination,” a situation not covered by the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Disagreeing, the circuit court said, “[W]e do not share the commonly held belief that this situation is one of so-called ‘reverse discrimination.’ Insofar as we are able to determine, the expression ‘reverse discrimination’ has no ascertainable meaning under the law.” The plaintiffs, who worked in Lima, Ohio, for General Dynamics, sued their employer after a new collective bargaining agreement no longer required it to provide health benefits to retirees with 30 years of seniority. Instead, the benefits remained only for those who were 50 or older when the pact went into effect. Though it acknowledged the new pact facially discriminated by creating two employee classes based solely on age, the district court said that the statute does not recognize “reverse discrimination” claims and that its purpose was “to address the problems faced by older workers, not workers who suffer discrimination because they are too young.” But the 6th Circuit countered that, “All the plaintiffs are members of the protected class … . Therefore, the protected class should be protected; to hold otherwise is discrimination, plain and simple.” One of the employees’ attorneys, E. Bruce Hadden of Columbus, Ohio, was heartened that the ruling stripped the case of its “reverse discrimination” tag, saying that only someone younger than the protected class could make such a claim. In a dissent, Judge Glen M. Williams noted that in its 1992 case Hamilton v. Caterpillar Inc., the 7th Circuit said that the ADEA “does not protect the young as well as the old, or even, we think the younger against the older.” This split between the circuits makes this decision important, said Louis A. Jacobs, an employment law professor at Ohio State University and co-author of “Litigating Age Discrimination Cases.” Such schisms can lead to further litigation that the Supreme Court must resolve. But because the 6th Circuit has remanded the case, it remains in play. “That’s why it’s not earthshaking,” Jacobs said, “but just a tremor.” In his dissent, Williams also said the ADEA was not designed to have courts “stand watch over labor unions” as they negotiate collective bargaining pacts. Hadden, though, was pleased that the 6th Circuit rejected this thinking. “If you can get around the statute by a collective bargaining agreement,” he said, “then there’s no reason for the statute.” Defense counsel Craig C. Martin could not be reached.

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