Supreme Court Again Ignores Legal Inequality of Older Workers

The U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to resolve a federal circuit split on the question of whether plaintiffs suing for age discrimination or retaliation can recover punitive damages and  damages for pain and suffering.

The  Court denied certiorari in a case filed by Susan  L. Vaughan, 54, a former nurse supervisor who sued Anderson Regional Medical Center in Mississippi for wrongful termination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

At the hospital’s request, a federal judge dismissed Vaughan’s claim for compensatory and punitive damages for retaliatory discharge. Currently age discrimination victims are limited to monetary loss only .

The issue harkens back to Congress’ decision in 1964 to exclude age as a protected class in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, color and national origin. Title VII’s plaintiffs are entitled to seek compensatory and punitive damages.

When Congress passed the ADEA, it incorporated the damages provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) into the ADEA..  The FLSA, a federal law that regulates the payment of overtime and minimum wage, limits damages to monetary loss only.

Vaughan’s attorneys argued that the ADEA should benefit from a 1977 amendment to the FLSA’s retaliation provision that permits courts to provide compensatory and punitive damages.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans ruled in February that the  expanded remedies of the FLSA do not apply to the ADEA.  By contrast, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled the 1977  FLSA amendments do allow  compensatory and punitive damages in ADEA retaliation cases.  Therefore, plaintiffs are entitled to difffering damages depending upon the state in which they reside.

Limits on damages are a major barrier to victims of age discrimination who wish to seek redress in federal courts.

Punitive damages and damages for emotional distress often are significant.  ADEA plaintiffs are limited to monetary loss and if there is none, ADEA plaintiffs get nothing (and their attorney gets no court-ordered attorneys fees). As a result, many attorneys will not represent age discrimination plaintiffs in federal court unless they are paid a substantial advance and an hourly fee.

The Court earlier this year refused to rule on another split in the circuits involving whether job applicants are covered under the ADEA.

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