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Supreme Court Sidesteps Disparate Impact Age Discrimination Case

April 3, 2002

On April 1, 2002, just eleven days after hearing oral argument in an age discrimination case that had the potential to resolve a split among the federal appeals courts on an important issue of age discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case, stating only that its writ of certiorari had been granted improvidently. In other words, the Court decided that it should not have taken the case.

In Adams v. Florida Power Corp., a class of former employees sued Florida Power Corp. over a series of reductions in force that had occurred between 1992 and 1996. The plaintiffs alleged that these reductions in force, under which more than 70 percent of the workers discharged were age 40 or over, had a disparate impact those workers, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. ยง 621 et seq.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected plaintiffs' claim, ruling that such a disparate impact theory of recovery, which allows for individuals to recover for employment practices that appear to be facially neutral but in fact impact more harshly on a protected group, is not available to plaintiffs under the ADEA. This conclusion is in contrast to the settled rule under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allows disparate impact claims. Although Title VII is in many respects similar to the ADEA, the Eleventh Circuit, in reaching its decision, relied heavily on certain differences between the texts of the two statutes as well as on the legislative history of the ADEA, suggesting that Congress did not intend disparate impact claims to be available under that law.

The Eleventh Circuit decision was in accord with prior rulings by the Courts of Appeal for the First, Seventh and Tenth Circuits. However, the Second, Eighth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal have reached the opposite conclusion, ruling that ADEA plaintiffs may proceed on a disparate impact theory.

In what appeared to be a move toward resolving this disagreement, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Adams in December of 2001 and heard oral arguments on March 20, 2002. The Court did not give a reason for its subsequent, unexpected decision to dismiss the case, but it may have determined that the procedural posture in which the case arose, or the particular facts of the case made it an inappropriate vehicle for resolving the important legal issue presented.

Consequently, until a definitive decision by the Supreme Court in a different case, or action by Congress, the question of the availability of disparate impact claims under the ADEA remains unresolved.