Age bias ruling could lead to flood of employment lawsuits

Legal News Line Jul. 12, 2008, 5:59pm

David Souter

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling could pave the way for lawsuits by employees laid off as businesses cut jobs amid a declining economy, an analyst said.

In June, the nation's highest court ruled in favor of former employees of New York-based Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory who claimed age discrimination led to their dismissal.

Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, N.Y., is a government-owned research and development facility operated by KAPL, Inc., a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp.

The decision against Lockheed was one of a number of workplace discrimination rulings issued by the court in its previous term, which -- unusually for the conservative-leaning court -- favored workers over bosses.

In its 7-1 decision, the high court said an employer bore the burden of explaining its reasons for laying off workers.

The majority of justices found that employers must provide "reasonable favors other than age" for the action to defend itself against an age-discrimination lawsuit.

"There is no denying that putting employers to the work of persuading fact finders that their choices are reasonable makes it harder and costlier to defend," Associate Justice David Souter wrote for the majority.

All but one of the 31 of the workers laid-off during an involuntary workforce reduction at Knolls was at least 40 years old.

Sixty percent of the entire workforce at Knolls was over the age of 40, concluded Fulcrum Financial Inquiry, a statistical analysis firm.

The statistic analysis of those laid off compared to those who weren't "demonstrated that the distribution of released employees was so skewed by age that it was extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance," Fulcrum found.

In all, about a dozen Supreme Court decisions dealt with the issue of worker rights.

David Nolte, principal of Los Angeles-based Fulcrum Financial Inquiry, said he believes cases like the Knoll's one will become more common as the economy weakens and group layoffs become more widespread.

The case, Nolte said, has particular emphasis in California.

"Most California discrimination cases are filed in state court, which has a more employee-friendly standard than federal law," Nolte said.

Also, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nolte said, "Has already ruled in a manner consistent with what the Supreme Court determined."

The case is Meacham et al. v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory et al., No. 06-1505.

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