By demonstrating that a retirement plan’s disability benefits provision facially discriminates on the basis of age, the EEOC has established a prima facie case of age discrimination, according to a divided en banc 6th Circuit ruling reversing its original panel’s decision. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, 03-6437) The full 6th further ruled that no evidence of discriminatory animus is required, since discriminatory intent was directly evidenced by the facially discriminatory nature of the plan. Perhaps somewhat less clear was the court’s rejection of its precedent in Lyon v. Ohio Education Assn and Professional Staff Union, by which earlier proceedings in Jefferson County had felt bound.
Prior to July 2000, a participant under the Kentucky Retirement System was ineligible to receive disability retirement benefits unless the individual was less than normal retirement age at disablement. After the current litigation commenced, an amendment modified the key condition to exclude from disability retirement any member who was eligible for an unreduced retirement allowance. The en banc panel found this plan design to be facially discriminatory on the basis of age in at least two ways: (1) Employees who remain in active service beyond a specified age are excluded from a particular employment benefit because of age; and (2) Even members who do become entitled to disability benefits receive lower benefits under the plan than similarly situated younger members.
Lyon‘s definition of a prima facie ADEA claim can no longer stand.
Previous rulings for this case had followed much the same path considered by the en banc panel, but had followed Lyon precedent, which had held the opposite of the two key rulings in the current case under arguably similar circumstances. Retracing steps all the way back to the origins of ADEA itself, the 6th now seems to see it differently, stating, “We believe that [OWBPA's] legislative history is compelling evidence that when revising the ADEA in response to Betts, Congress intended to prohibit the very sort of age-based discrimination that the original panel [in the current case], bound by Lyon, condoned in this plan.” Yet although concurring with the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Rogers observes inter alia not only that it is unnecessary to overrule Lyon except to the extent that former precedent is inconsistent with the current holding, but that this decision leaves us with a fair degree of uncertainty, wryly quipping, “I would leave to future litigants the task of going through Lyon and identifying what survives and what does not.”
Dissenting opinion found relevant distinction between the Kentucky Retirement System design and the landmark Betts template, the crucial distinction being that Betts’ Ohio plan provided younger workers with a specific benefit that was withheld from older workers, whereas the Kentucky system’s design provides disability benefits that are intrinsically no different than normal retirement benefits. Perhaps the point at which one ought to commence Rogers’ task, then, might be to speculate which long-accepted normal retirement benefit designs could now come under renewed scrutiny, with an ever-evolving light?