Unlawful age discrimination can take many different forms – including policies that don’t flat-out say they discriminate based on age but have the clear effect of doing so.
Here’s a case in point: A school district in Illinois was found to have violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by implementing a collective bargaining agreement provision that had the effect of unfairly limiting the pay of older employees.
Let’s break it all down.
In 1991, language arts teacher Charles Koplinski began working for Urbana School District No. 116 in Illinois.
To calculate a teacher’s pension, the state looks at the average of the four highest consecutive salary years over their last 10 years before retirement.
Teachers hired before 2005, known as “Tier 1” teachers, can retire with a full pension at age 55 with 35 years of service. With 10 years of service, they have to work until age 60. And with five years of service, they must go until age 62.
Teachers with 20 years of service can retire at 55 with a discounted pension.
New provision leads to age discrimination
In 2005, the state passed a new law that required districts to pay more into the teacher’s retirement system if the teacher received a raise of more than 6% in any of those critical four years.
The district did not like the idea of having to pay more, so in 2007 it added a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) provision.
The new provision said teachers who were eligible to retire within 10 years could not get an annual raise of more than 6%. The provision had the effect of eliminating any extra payment that would be required by a larger raise.
Good news, bad news
That move may have eliminated the need to pay more into the retirement system, but it created a bigger problem: unlawful age discrimination.
More specifically, it only applied to employees who were at least 45 years old. (Federal protection against age discrimination begins at age 40.) And it had the clear effect of imposing a wage limitation on older workers that did not apply to younger ones.
Not surprisingly, Koplinski was not a fan of the new CBA provision. He earned a master’s degree in 2008, and by 2015 he had earned enough post-master’s credits to move up on the district’s salary scale.
If he was under 45, his salary would have gone up to $77,242. But because he was within 10 years of retirement eligibility at age 50, the district applied the 6% cap and his salary went up to only $73,880.94 instead.
Koplinski was not alone; the district similarly applied the 6% cap to at least two dozen other teachers.
In 2017, Koplinski filed an EEOC charge against the district, saying “he was told he was paid less because he was 10 years away from retiring.” The district also allegedly told him that it was state law that limited his salary increase to 6%.
Uh-oh — Here come the feds
The EEOC jumped on board to pursue the case on Koplinski’s behalf, and that is never a good thing for employers.
It said the district’s application of the cap violated the federal ADEA by limiting salary increases for older workers and by limiting their supplemental pay.
At the district court, both sides asked the court to enter summary judgment in their favor.
The court granted the EEOC’s motion and denied the district’s motion. The record showed that the district’s policy facially discriminated based on age, the court said.
Tier 1 teachers could not retire before the age of 55 – and that meant the only teachers subject to the wage limitations were those who were at least 45 years old.
The district drew “an express line” at age 45, the court explained. Its differential treatment of older teachers violated the ADEA, it determined.
That’s not a good reason
In so doing, the court rejected the district’s argument that a desire to avoid making additional payments into the system was a valid reason to implement the challenged policy on wages.
The EEOC’s motion was granted, and the district’s was denied. The court ordered the district to pay $51,093 in back pay. The EEOC said it will seek additional lost wages in further proceedings.
EEOC v. Urbana School Dist. No. 116, No. 18-cv-2212 (C.D. Ill. 11/7/23).