On June 19, 2008, the United States Supreme Court issued four employment-related decisions that are briefly summarized as follows:

Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory:  The government ordered its contractor to reduce its workforce. The contractor had its managers select employees for layoff based on factors including performance, flexibility, critical skills and seniority. The resulting reduction in force netted 31 employees, 30 of which were over 40. Several laid off employees sued claiming the neutral factors used for layoff had a disparate impact on older workers.

The Court noted that the employees in a disparate impact case must isolate and identify specific employment practices that are allegedly responsible for the statistical disparity disfavoring older workers. The employer must prove that the neutral factors constitute “reasonable factors other than age”. Reasonableness differs from business necessity.

Chamber of Commerce v. Brown:  The Court struck down a California law that prohibited employers who receive state funding from using those funds to “assist, promote, or deter union organizing.” The Court held that the NLRA preempts state laws that attempt to regulate areas that the NLRA protects or prohibits.

Kentucky Retirement System v. EEOC:  Kentucky’s pension program imputed additional years of service for workers in “hazardous positions” who became disabled so as to credit them with service to reach “normal retirement” under the plan. An employee who worked past normal retirement age and then became disabled challenged the plan on the basis of age discrimination. He argued that the disability pension calculation disadvantaged older workers based on their aged.

The Court noted the distinction between “age” and “pension status”. When an employer adopts a pension plan that includes age as a factor, and that employer treats employees differently based on pension status, a plaintiff must prove that the differential treatment was “actually motivated” by age and not pension status to prevail under the ADEA.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Green:   A life insurance company was the administrator of an employer’s long-term disability plan so it decided an employee’s eligibility for benefits and paid the claim out of its pocket. The insurer determined that an employee was not eligible for benefits and the employee appealed.

The Court analyzed the standard of review of a plan administrator’s denial of benefits under ERISA when the administrator is both the decision maker and the payer of benefits. In such a situation, the administrator has a conflict of interest, which a court may consider as a factor in accessing whether the decision is an abuse of its discretion under the plan. The administrator’s decision is entitled to “deference” and the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the administrator; however, it may consider the conflict as part of its assessment.

Hat tip to Connecticut for being faster by a nose.