Workers Win Dispute on Retirement : Court Rules Pilots, Firefighters Can’t Be Forced Out at 60

United Press International

The Supreme Court today gave older Americans in physically demanding jobs greater rights to work beyond traditional retirement ages, ruling in favor of firefighters and airline pilots fighting to keep working.

The justices ruled unanimously that Baltimore could not force its firefighters to retire at 55, despite a federal policy of retiring most government firefighters at that age.

The court also held 8 to 0, with Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. not participating, that Western Airlines could not force pilots to retire at 60 and must consider making pilots into flight engineers if they request it.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial pilots to retire at age 60, but does not prevent them from becoming flight engineers.


Age Not Qualification

Both cases hinged on federal requirements concerning whether age is a genuine occupational qualification for a job.

“We . . . conclude this civil service provision does not articulate a bona fide occupational qualification for firefighters (and) that its presence in (federal law) is not relevant to the question of a bona fide occupational qualification for firefighters,” Justice Thurgood Marshall said of the federal rule on firefighters.

Five of the high court’s nine members are over the age of 75 and another three are over 60.


Robert Johnson, a Baltimore city firefighter, and five of his colleagues had challenged Baltimore’s mandatory retirement policy. Johnson and four others were 60 or older when the lawsuit against the mayor, City Council members and other city officials was brought in May, 1979.

Violated Age Act

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission joined the suit, charging that the policy discriminated on the basis of age in violation of the 1967 federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects workers from forced retirement up to age 70.

The city argued that age is a legitimate and necessary occupational qualification for firefighters and that their ability to perform their duties safely and efficiently diminishes after age 60.


A federal district court ruled that Baltimore had not proved that mandatory retirement was necessary to operate the Fire Department, or that firefighters over the age limit could not perform satisfactorily. The court concluded that the city should conduct individual testing on firefighters over 60 to see if they could do their jobs.

U.S. Precedent Cited

But that decision was reversed by a federal appeals court, which found that since Congress had designated age 55 as the retirement date for most firefighters working for the federal government, age was a legitimate occupational qualification for that job at the state and local levels.

In other actions, the court:


--Affirmed on a 4-4 vote, with Powell abstaining, a lower court ruling that a Nebraska law requiring a photograph on a driver’s license interfered with a woman’s religious belief against the making of any “graven image.”

--Held 7 to 2 in a Maryland case that the purchase of allegedly obscene material by an undercover police officer is not a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and does not require a search warrant.