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Court Curbs Age Limits on Public Safety Workers

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, reaffirming the barriers against age discrimination, eased the way Monday for older workers to stay in demanding jobs involving public safety beyond traditional retirement dates.

The justices, ruling in two cases, barred employers from invoking safety reasons as a broad justification for mandatory retirement before age 70 without clear proof that older employees are a danger to the public.

The court held unanimously that the city of Baltimore could not force its firefighters to retire at age 55, despite federal regulations requiring retirement at 55 for most government firefighters.

Ruling on Flight Engineers

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In another case, the court by a vote of 8 to 0 upheld a ruling that Western Airlines had improperly forced flight engineers to retire at age 60, the age at which commercial pilots--but not flight engineers--must retire under federal regulations.

Many employers already have relaxed retirement rules in the wake of sweeping federal legislation. Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, most workers may stay on the job at least until age 70. Some cities have eased their rules to allow firefighters, policemen and other public safety officers to stay on the job until 65 or longer--in the case of Los Angeles, beyond 70, if the employees pass fitness tests.

But countless municipalities still maintain earlier mandatory retirement, based largely on concern that older workers in physically demanding jobs present additional risk to the public. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to specifically exempt state and local firefighters and police officers from provisions of the age discrimination act.

The court’s rulings do not necessarily prevent employers from imposing mandatory retirement in public safety jobs. But, to do so, they will have to show that age-based mandatory retirement is “reasonably necessary” to protect public safety--and show that “all or substantially all” older workers are unfit for those jobs or that it is “impossible or highly impractical” to test for fitness on an individual basis.

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Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court in the airlines case, cited studies indicating that physical ability is not necessarily dependent on age. “Many older American workers perform at levels equal or superior to their younger colleagues,” Stevens observed.

Exception to Law Cited

In the firefighters’ case (Johnson vs. Mayor of Baltimore, 84-518), Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the court, rejected the city’s contention that its age limit was a “bona fide occupational qualification” under an exception provided in the age discrimination act.

The city had tried to justify its policy by pointing to federal civil service statutes requiring most federal firefighters and law enforcement officers to quit at 55. There is no age limit for most other federal workers.

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But Marshall concluded that federal policy was “not relevant” in this case--and that, in any event, Congress had never specifically found that such workers were unfit after age 55. The court could not automatically conclude that Congress intended to permit such policies by states and cities, he said.

Jury Verdict Upheld

In the airlines case (Western Airlines vs. Criswell, 83-1545), the court affirmed a ruling by a federal appeals court in San Francisco upholding a jury verdict rejecting Western Airlines’ contention that its age limit on flight engineers was justified for safety reasons.

Stevens refused to accept the airline’s position that it was entitled to mandate earlier retirement when experts disagreed about the ability of older workers in demanding jobs. Such a rule would require juries always to defer to the employer’s expert witness over contrary testimony, he said. He noted also that some airlines permit flight engineers to stay on after age 60. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. did not participate.

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In other action, the court:

--Upheld, by a 4-4 vote, a ruling that prevented Nebraska authorities from requiring a photograph on the driver’s license of Frances J. Quaring, who, for religious reasons, opposes all “graven images.” Quaring, a member of the Pentecostal church, forbids television, photos and paintings in her home and obliterates illustrations on food packages with a black marking pen.

The court’s action sets no legal precedent. It was the eighth time this term--the most in recent history--that the court has divided equally on a case it agreed to hear. Powell, who was recovering from surgery when the case was argued, did not participate (Jensen vs. Quaring, 83-1944).

--Ruled 7 to 2 that undercover police officers do not need to obtain a search warrant to purchase allegedly obscene material. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, said that an officer’s entering a bookstore and examining material openly for sale to the public did not infringe on a store owner’s expectation of privacy (Maryland vs. Macon, 84-778).

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