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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law barringemployers from discriminating against workers over 40 doesn’t protect those same workers when employers give better benefits to their older colleagues. The Court, in the 6-3 decision, said a federal anti-discrimination law is meant to protect older workers from preferential treatment given to younger workers, but the law does not apply in reverse. The case had been closely watched because about 70 million U.S. workers are 40 or older, roughly half the nation’s work force. Workers 40 and older are protected by the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, designed to stop employment age bias. If the Court had interpreted the law differently, companies could have been vulnerable to lawsuits from employees in their 40s or 50s, when they offered attractive retirement packages to workers in their 60s. The Bush administration unsuccessfully argued that the law was “crystal clear” in protecting people over 40 from discrimination, even when contested actions help more senior co-workers. The decision blocks a lawsuit over a benefits change that helped older workers at a division of General Dynamics Corp., which makes battle tanks and combat vehicles for the military. The Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling that said the company could be sued under the 1967 law. General Dynamics had maintained that Congress intended to protect “older” employees. Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority, agreed. “The statute does not mean to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one,” he wrote. But in a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas complained “this should have been an easy case.” The law, he said, “clearly allows for suits brought by the relatively young when discriminated against in favor of the relatively old.” Also in dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy. About 200 General Dynamic workers in Ohio and Pennsylvania had sued, claiming they were discriminated against because they were too young to get benefits being offered to older colleagues. During the argument at the Court last fall, some justices said the case asked whether companies can cut some slack to employees close to retirement age without illegally discriminating against 40-something employees. The law clearly “forbids discriminatory preference of the young over the old,” Souter wrote in the decision. “The question in this case is whether it also prohibits favoring the old over the young. We hold it does not,” he said. The case is General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. v. Cline, 02-1080. Also Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that a Greece-based airline can be held responsible for the death of an asthmatic passenger who was seated near the smoking section. A judge had ordered Olympic Airways to pay $1.4 million to the family of Dr. Abid Hanson, 52, who suffered an asthma attack on a flight from Greece to New York in January 1998, after being exposed to second hand smoke. The airline lost its argument that it was not liable under international treaties demanding compensation for those injured or killed during an “accident.” The case is Olympic Airways v. Husain, 02-1348. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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