Sunday, December 28, 2008
US Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Workers in MEACHAM ET AL. v. KNOLLS ATOMIC POWER LABORATORY
June 21, 2008
New York Times Editorial
The Court and Workers
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts (pictured at right) quickly carved out a reputation for being reflexively pro-business. On Thursday, however, it issued a good ruling in favor of workers suing for age discrimination, the latest of several pro-worker decisions. The ruling is an encouraging sign that the court may be evolving in its approach to cases brought by workers who have been treated unfairly.
Twenty-eight workers in a federal naval laboratory in upstate New York sued after losing their jobs. Of the 31 people laid off, 30 were over the age of 40. The employer claimed that the high percentage of older workers selected was because of factors other than age, a defense the law allows. The question for the court was: Does the employer have to prove that those reasonable nonage-related factors existed, or do the fired workers have to disprove it?
The court ruled, 7 to 1, that the burden is on the employer. The majority opinion, by Justice David Souter, explains in straightforward terms that when Congress allowed employers to make defenses based on “reasonable factors other than age,” it required the employers to come up with the proof to support them.
The ruling is notable because the court has appeared in recent years to go out of its way to side with corporations, including on employment issues. It was roundly criticized last year in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire & Rubber supervisor who alleged that she was paid less than her male colleagues for years. The court twisted the deadline set out in the civil rights law to rule that she had filed her complaint too late. It was a bizarre decision that the dissenters, and many members of Congress, pointed out was not supported by the law, and was completely unworkable in practice.
Thursday’s ruling comes a few weeks after a pair of good decisions from the court in favor of workers who claimed that they were retaliated against by their employers after they alleged discrimination.
The Roberts court has hardly become a bastion of workers’ rights. On Thursday, it also ruled against older workers in a pension case and struck down a California law intended to prevent employers from coercing workers not to join unions. Still, we hope the recent round of pro-worker rulings is an indication that the court may be becoming more evenhanded in its approach to employment cases.