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Interpretation of the ADEA by courts is inconsistent

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers who are 40 years of age or older against discrimination based on their age, but courts have been inconsistent in how the law should be applied when older workers have been disproportionately affected by employer decisions. In early January 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in favor of a group of workers at a Pennsylvania company who were all over 50 years of age, but several other federal appeals courts have sided with employers in similar cases.

The appellate court held that a Pittsburgh company unfairly discriminated against its older employees when it terminated 100 workers. The court was convinced by the workers' argument that that they were treated unfairly by an apparently neutral company policy. A district court had ruled against the plaintiffs because the policy in question did not discriminate against co-workers between the ages of 40 and 50. The court concluded that disparate-impact claims based on ADEA protections could be made by subgroups of workers such as those of a particular age group.

The ruling is at odds with decisions made by the 2nd Circuit in 1989, the 6th Circuit in 1991 and the 8th Circuit in 1999. However, the 3rd Circuit judges pointed out in their ruling that these other appeals court decisions were made before the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the matter. They also said that the judges involved had been incorrect in assuming that recognizing subgroups would lead to a proliferation of workplace discrimination lawsuits.

Employers are often reluctant to settle discrimination cases because they fear that doing so could trigger a flood of similar complaints. Attorneys with a background in employment law could assess the merits of discrimination or harassment claims and advise workers about their chances of prevailing either in court or at the negotiating table. They could also point out the sanctions that employers could face for retaliating against workers who make such claims.

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