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Court rules for workers in age bias suit

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June 19, 2008 11:36 AM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court made it easier Thursday for employees to prove they have suffered discrimination because of their age.

In a 7-1 ruling, the court said that when older workers are disproportionately affected by an employment decision, the employer bears the burden of explaining whether there was a reasonable explanation other than age for the company's action.

The case involves workers over 40 who challenged their dismissals from jobs at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York.

Thirty of the 31 workers laid off by the lab in 1996 were over 40. Twenty-six of those employees sued Knolls claiming that the layoffs violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Justice David Souter acknowledged, in his majority opinion, that the decision "makes it harder and costlier to defend" age discrimination lawsuits. But Souter said, "We have to read it the way Congress wrote it."

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a brief dissent.

The Knolls lab has worked on nuclear-powered warships for more than 50 years. The lab had to reduce the number of employees in the mid-1990s following the end of the Cold War. Even after roughly 100 employees took buyouts, the lab still needed to eliminate jobs.

The older workers who were laid off sued, claiming both that the company intended to discriminate on the basis of age and that the results of the layoffs were discriminatory. A jury agreed with the lab that there was no proof of discriminatory intent, but found that there was age discrimination in the effect of the layoffs.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Knolls.

Justice Stephen Breyer did not take part in the case. He owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in State Street Corp. common stock, according to his 2008 financial disclosure report. State Street owns more than 18 percent of Lockheed Martin Corp., which owns the lab.