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Leslie Bonacum
Neil Allen

What Are The Real Implications Of The Supreme Court Ruling On Age Discrimination?

CCH Offers Analysis of What It Means to State Employers and Employees

(RIVERWOODS, ILL., January 14, 2000) – The recent Supreme Court ruling on age discrimination suits by state employees is expected to have a significant impact well beyond the age bias issue, according to CCH INCORPORATED (CCH), a leading provider of employment law and human resources information and software.

"The battle being waged here deals with state vs. federal rights; it’s just being played out in the context of employment law," said Joy Waltemath, an attorney and employment law analyst for CCH. "At this point, it’s apparent that this Supreme Court is recognizing the specific rights of the states and sending Congress a message not to overstep its bounds."

Case Review

The Supreme Court case, Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, was brought by current and former employees of Florida State University and Florida International University who sued the Florida Board of Regents. The employees contended that the universities’ failure to fund salary increases resulted in disparities in pay that were based unlawfully on age bias.

In its ruling on the case, the Supreme Court said state employees who are subjected to age bias can’t use the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) – a federal law – to sue their employers in federal court.

Taking a Closer Look

According to CCH, two key issues were presented to the Court. The first was whether the federal age discrimination law clearly showed congressional intent to override states’ sovereign immunity from federal lawsuits, a right given to states under the 11th Amendment.

The Court found that changes to the ADEA in 1974 clearly were intended to permit an individual to bring a civil action against any employer, including a public agency, in federal or state court.

But the Court's inquiry couldn't end there because of the Court's 1996 decision in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, which held that Congress' powers under Article 1 do not include the power to subject states to suit at the hands of private individuals. Congress has that power under the 14th Amendment, but only to protect constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Ultimately, the Court found Congress does not have the same authority under the 14th Amendment to protect employees against age discrimination as it does when the discrimination is based on race, national origin or religion, which the Court deemed "suspect classifications," warranting higher levels of scrutiny.

"Essentially, the Court is making a distinction between two classifications: suspect classifications, such as race and religion, where any discrimination is intolerable; and non-suspect classifications, such as age, where there may be a legitimate cause for some type of decisions based on age," said Waltemath. "For example, some states have mandatory retirement laws for emergency personnel, based on the belief that age does affect the individual’s ability to do the job. In these instances, the Court is saying that federal law can’t supersede state’s rights to make these decisions, so long as there is a rational basis for the decision."

Specifically, said Justice O’Connor, writing for the majority, "States may discriminate on the basis of age without offending the 14th Amendment if the age classification in question is rationally related to a legitimate state interest."

Now What: Implications of the Ruling

Together with a Supreme Court ruling handed down last year, this ruling dealing with federal court suits now makes it impossible for state employees to sue their employers successfully under the ADEA. Last June, the Supreme Court held in Alden v. Maine that Congress does not have the power to subject non-consenting states to private damages suits in state courts.

"However, state employees are not left without recourse," said Waltemath. "Almost every state protects state employees from age discrimination through state laws that allow age bias victims to recover monetary damages."

In addition, although the decision didn't mention other federal employment laws, the Court's reasoning may apply to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), since disability, like age discrimination, is not a suspect class in the eyes of the Court, according to CCH.

"From a practical perspective, the outcome of this decision will be to focus more attention on state legislative action and state courts as protectors of employee rights, so that state employees don't become ‘second-class citizens’ with respect to protection against employment discrimination," said Waltemath. "Those states that don't already have age discrimination or disability protections are likely to find their legislatures pressured to enact preventative measures."


CCH INCORPORATED, Riverwoods, Ill., is a leading provider of tax and business law information and software for human resources, accounting, legal, securities, health care, banking and small business professionals. The company’s Health and Human Resources Group is among the nation’s most noted authoritative sources of employment law, including information on benefits, compensation, worker safety and human resources management. CCH is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer U.S. The CCH web site can be accessed at The CCH Human Resources Group web site can be accessed at

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