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General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline

February 24, 2004

GENERAL DYNAMICS LAND SYSTEMS, INC., PETITIONER
v.
DENNIS CLINE ET AL.



On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Sixth Circuit Court Below: 296 F. 3d 466

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2003

Argued November 12, 2003

A collective-bargaining agreement between petitioner company and a union eliminated the company's obligation to provide health benefits to subsequently retired employees, except as to then-current workers at least 50 years old. Respondent employees (collectively, Cline) -- who were then at least 40 and thus protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), but under 50 and so without promise of the benefits --claimed before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that the agreement violated the ADEA because it "discriminate[d against them] ... because of [their] age," 29 U. S. C. §623(a)(1). The EEOC agreed, and invited the company and the union to settle informally with Cline. When they failed, Cline brought this action under the ADEA and state law. The District Court dismissed, calling the federal claim one of "reverse age discrimination" upon which no court had ever granted relief under the ADEA, and relying on a Seventh Circuit decision holding that the ADEA does not protect younger workers against older workers. The Sixth Circuit reversed, reasoning that §623(a)(1)'s prohibition of discrimination is so clear on its face that if Congress had meant to limit its coverage to protect only the older worker against the younger, it would have said so. The court acknowledged that its ruling conflicted with earlier cases, but criticized those decisions for paying too much attention to the general language of Congress's ADEA findings. The court also drew support from the EEOC's position in an interpretive regulation.

Held: The ADEA's text, structure, purpose, history, and relationship to other federal statutes show that the statute does not mean to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one. Pp. 3-17.

1. The ADEA's prohibition covers "discriminat[ion] ... because of [an] individual's age" that helps the younger by hurting the older. In the abstract, that phrase is open to the broader construction that it also prohibits favor for the old over the young, since §623(a)(1)'s reference to "age" carries no express modifier, and the word could be read to look two ways. This more expansive possible understanding does not, however, square with the natural reading of the whole provision prohibiting discrimination. In fact Congress's interpretive clues speak almost unanimously to an understanding of discrimination as directed against workers who are older than the ones getting treated better. The ADEA's prefatory finding and purpose provisions and their legislative history make a case to this effect that is beyond reasonable doubt. Nor is it remarkable that the record is devoid of any evidence that younger workers were suffering at their elders' expense, let alone that a social problem required a federal statute to place a younger worker in parity with an older one. The ADEA's restriction of the protected class to those 40 and above confirms this interpretation. If Congress had been worrying about protecting the younger against the older, it would not likely have ignored everyone under 40. The federal case reports are as replete with decisions taking this position as they are nearly devoid of decisions like the one under review. While none of this Court's cases directly addresses the question presented here, all of them show the Court's consistent understanding that the text, structure, and history point to the ADEA as a remedy for unfair preference based on relative youth, leaving complaints of the relatively young outside the statutory concern. See, e.g., Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Souter

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA or Act), 81 Stat. 602, 29 U. S. C. §621 et seq., forbids discriminatory preference for the young over the old. The question in this case is whether it also prohibits favoring the old over the young. We hold it does not.

I.

In 1997, a collective-bargaining agreement between petitioner General Dynamics and the United Auto Workers eliminated the company's obligation to provide health benefits to subsequently retired employees, except as to then-current workers at least 50 years old. Respondents (collectively, Cline) were then at least 40 and thus protected by the Act, see 29 U. S. C. §631(a), but under 50 and so without promise of the benefits. All of them objected to the new terms, although some had retired before the change in order to get the prior advantage, some retired afterwards with no benefit, and some worked on, knowing the new contract would give them no health coverage when they were through.

Before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission) they claimed that the agreement violated the ADEA, because it "discriminate[d against them] ... with respect to ... compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of [their] age," §623(a)(1). The EEOC agreed, and invited General Dynamics and the union to settle informally with Cline.

When they failed, Cline brought this action against General Dynamics, combining claims under the ADEA and state law. The District Court called the federal claim one of "reverse age discrimination," upon which, it observed, no court had ever granted relief under the ADEA. 98 F. Supp. 2d 846, 848 (ND Ohio 2000). It dismissed in reliance on the Seventh Circuit's opinion in Hamilton v. Caterpillar Inc., 966 F. 2d 1226 (1992), that "the ADEA `does not protect ... the younger against the older,' " id., at 1227 (quoting Karlen v. City Colleges of Chicago, 837 F. 2d 314, 318 (CA7), cert. denied sub nom. Teachers v. City Colleges of Chicago, 486 U. S. 1044 (1988)).

A divided panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed, 296 F. 3d 466 (2002), with the majority reasoning that the prohibition of §623(a)(1), covering discrimination against "any individual ... because of such individual's age," is so clear on its face that if Congress had meant to limit its coverage to protect only the older worker against the younger, it would have said so. Id., at 472. The court acknowledged the conflict of its ruling with earlier cases, including Hamilton and Schuler v. Polaroid Corp., 848 F. 2d 276 (1988) (Breyer, J.), from the First Circuit, but it criticized the cases going the other way for paying too much attention to the "hortatory, generalized language" of the congressional findings incorporated in the ADEA. 296 F. 3d, at 470. The Sixth Circuit drew support for its view from the position taken by the EEOC in an interpretive regulation.*fn1 Id., at 471.

Judge Cole, concurring, saw the issue as one of plain meaning that produced no absurd result, although he acknowledged a degree of tension with O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., 517 U. S. 308 (1996), in which this Court spoke of age discrimination as giving better treatment to a "substantially younger" worker. 296 F. 3d, at 472. Judge Williams dissented in preference for Hamilton and the consensus of the federal courts, thinking it "obvious that the older a person is, the greater his or her needs become." 296 F. 3d, at 476.

We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict among the Circuits, 538 U. S. 976 (2003), and now reverse.

II.

The common ground in this case is the generalization that the ADEA's prohibition covers "discriminat[ion] ... because of [an] individual's age," 29 U. S. C. §623(a)(1), that helps the younger by hurting the older. In the abstract, the phrase is open to an argument for a broader construction, since reference to "age" carries no express modifier and the word could be read to look two ways. This more expansive possible understanding does not, however, square with the natural reading of the whole provision prohibiting discrimination, and in fact Congress's interpretive clues speak almost unanimously to an understanding of discrimination as directed against workers who are older than the ones getting treated better.

Congress chose not to include age within discrimination forbidden by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, §715, 78 Stat. 265, being aware that there were legitimate reasons as well as invidious ones for making employment decisions on age. Instead it called for a study of the issue by the Secretary of Labor, ibid., who concluded that age discrimination was a serious problem, but one different in kind from discrimination on account of race.*fn2 The Secretary spoke of disadvantage to older individuals from arbitrary and stereotypical employment distinctions (including then-common policies of age ceilings on hiring), but he examined the problem in light of rational considerations of increased pension cost and, in some cases, legitimate concerns about an older person's ability to do the job. Wirtz Report 2. When the Secretary ultimately took the position that arbitrary discrimination against older workers was widespread and persistent enough to call for a federal legislative remedy, id., at 21-22, he placed his recommendation against the background of common experience that the potential cost of employing someone rises with age, so that the older an employee is, the greater the inducement to prefer a younger substitute. The report contains no suggestion that reactions to age level off at some point, and it was devoid of any indication that the Secretary had noticed unfair advantages accruing to older employees at the expense of their juniors.

Congress then asked for a specific proposal, Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1966, §606, 80 Stat. 845, which the Secretary provided in January 1967. 113 Cong. Rec. 1377 (1967); see also Public Papers of the Presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, Vol. 1, Jan. 23, 1967, p. 37 (1968) (message to Congress urging that "[o]pportunity ... be opened to the many Americans over 45 who are qualified and willing to work"). Extensive House and Senate hearings ensued. See Age Discrimination in Employment: Hearings on H. R. 3651 et al. before the General Subcommittee on Labor of the House Committee on Education and Labor, 90th Cong., 1st Sess. (1967) (hereinafter House Hearings); Age Discrimination in Employment: Hearings on S. 830 and S. 788 before the Subcommittee on Labor of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, 90th Cong., 1st Sess. (1967) (hereinafter Senate Hearings). See generally EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U. S. 226, 229-233 (1983).

The testimony at both hearings dwelled on unjustified assumptions about the effect of age on ability to work. See, e.g., House Hearings 151 (statement of Rep. Joshua Eilberg) ("At age 40, a worker may find that age restrictions become common ... . By age 45, his employment opportunities are likely to contract sharply; they shrink more severely at age 55 and virtually vanish by age 65"); id., at 422 (statement of Rep. Claude Pepper) ("We must provide meaningful opportunities for employment to the thousands of workers 45 and over who are well qualified but nevertheless denied jobs which they may desperately need because someone has arbitrarily decided that they are too old"); Senate Hearings 34 (statement of Sen. George Murphy) ("[A]n older worker often faces an attitude on the part of some employers that prevents him from receiving serious consideration or even an interview in his search for employment").*fn3 The hearings specifically addressed higher pension and benefit costs as heavier drags on hiring workers the older they got. See, e.g., House Hearings 45 (statement of Norman Sprague) (Apart from stereotypes, "labor market conditions, seniority and promotion-from-within policies, job training costs, pension and insurance costs, and mandatory retirement policies often make employers reluctant to hire older workers"). The record thus reflects the common facts that an individual's chances to find and keep a job get worse over time; as between any two people, the younger is in the stronger position, the older more apt to be tagged with demeaning stereotype. Not surprisingly, from the voluminous records of the hearings, we have found (and Cline has cited) nothing suggesting that any workers were registering complaints about discrimination in favor of their seniors.

Nor is there any such suggestion in the introductory provisions of the ADEA, 81 Stat. 602, which begins with statements of purpose and findings that mirror the Wirtz Report and the committee transcripts. Id., §2. The findings stress the impediments suffered by "older workers ... in their efforts to retain ... and especially to regain employment," id., §2(a)(1); "the [burdens] of arbitrary age limits regardless of potential for job performance," id., §2(a)(2); the costs of "otherwise desirable practices [that] may work to the disadvantage of older persons," ibid.; and "the incidence of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment[, which] is, relative to the younger ages, high among older workers," id., §2(a)(3). The statutory objects were "to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age; to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment; [and] to help employers and workers find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment." Id., §2(b).

In sum, except on one point, all the findings and statements of objectives are either cast in terms of the effects of age as intensifying over time, or are couched in terms that refer to "older" workers, explicitly or implicitly relative to "younger" ones. The single subject on which the statute speaks less specifically is that of "arbitrary limits" or "arbitrary age discrimination." But these are unmistakable references to the Wirtz Report's finding that "[a]lmost three out of every five employers covered by [a] 1965 survey have in effect age limitations (most frequently between 45 and 55) on new hires which they apply without consideration of an applicant's other ...


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