Age was a necessary but insufficient factor in a county’s decision to terminate part-time rehired retirees who were 65 years old or older, the Seventh Circuit stated, finding no evidence the county employer engaged in unlawful discrimination. Affirming summary judgment against their ADEA claims, the appeals court explained that a combination of current employment and participation in a supplemental insurance program was the decisive factor that distinguished the population of terminated employees from the larger workforce. Summary judgment was also affirmed against their equal protection claim (Carson v. Lake County, Indiana, July 26, 2017, Hamilton, D.).
The plaintiffs, retirees who had been rehired part time, received a Medicare supplemental health insurance policy through Aetna that was paid for by the county. In 2013, Aetna informed the county that current employees, including rehired retirees, could not participate in the supplemental insurance plan without the county risking either forfeiting its supplemental insurance coverage altogether or incurring substantial costs to bring the plan into compliance with federal rules and regulations governing group health insurance.
The criteria. After consulting with an employee benefits attorney who confirmed Aetna’s position and advised the county “not to rehire any retirees,” or, alternatively, to rehire them full-time and offer them regular benefits, the county, in 2013, terminated 28 part-time rehired retirees. In its letter to the retirees, the county explained that they were selected for termination because they met each of four criteria: (1) they had retired from county service and were later rehired part-time; (2) they were age 65 or older; (3) they were receiving Medicare as their primary insurance; and (4) they were enrolled in the Aetna supplement. A much larger group of employees age 65 or older who were not enrolled in the supplement continued their employment with the county.
Plaintiffs, a subset of the 28 part-time employees who were terminated, sued the county for age discrimination in violation of the ADEA and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment and the district court granted the county’s motion.
Not facially discriminatory. Arguing on appeal that the county’s decision was discriminatory on its face, the plaintiffs asserted that since all part-time employees who were terminated were age 65 or older, and since age was one of the criteria listed in the termination letter, “age was a but-for cause, as their age was a necessary condition for the defendant’s decision to terminate them.” The problem with this argument, said the court, was that age was not the impetus for the decision.
Noting that the plaintiffs shared four characteristics—they were (1) age 65 or older, (2) enrolled in Medicare for their primary health insurance coverage, but also were (3) rehired retirees, and (4) most important, enrolled in the Aetna supplemental policy—the court explained that the county did not terminate them because of their ages. Rather, it terminated them because they were enrolled in a retiree-only insurance plan in which current employees could not participate.
Not a proxy. The plaintiffs also argued that Medicare eligibility, and presumably enrollment in a Medicare supplement, may function as a proxy for age, such that an employer’s decision to terminate an employee based on such insurance coverage is a form of implicit age discrimination. The court, however, found no evidence that the county engaged in any prohibited stereotyping. The county did not “suppose a correlation” between the plaintiffs’ Medicare status and age and “act accordingly,” the court observed, pointing out that instead it fired only those employees who were enrolled in the Aetna supplement, leaving unaffected a large number of employees age 65 or older who had not enrolled in the supplement. The undisputed facts, said the court, showed that economic and regulatory pressures—not generalizations about the capabilities of elderly employees—drove the county’s decision,
Government policy. Moreover, the court noted, even a government policy that affects different age groups differently may not necessarily discriminate because of age. Explaining that the question is fact sensitive, the court found that here there was “no evidence of stereotypical assumptions, the likes of which Congress sought to suppress through the ADEA.” Rather, the county asserted a clear non-age-related rationale for its policy: an effort to reserve affordable health insurance for retirees. And while the county could have explained its predicament to the small group of affected part-timers and then offered each a choice between continued insurance or continued employment, that did not change the “bottom-line result in this ADEA case,” said the court, noting that the county “could not fire its employees because of their age, but we see no evidence of such disparate treatment in the record.”
Burden-shifting framework. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that they could prove their disparate treatment claim through the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting frame-work, finding that they could not even establish a prima facie case as they could not show they were treated less favorably than similarly situated employees outside their protected class. Noting that they were among the small group of rehired retirees who were employed part-time and insured under Medicare and the Aetna supplement, the court pointed out that all such employees were fired, all (regardless of age) who remain employed by the county are not enrolled in the Aetna supplement, and all retirees who benefit from the supplement are no longer employed by the county.
Disparate impact. As to their disparate impact claim, in which they alleged they were the victims of an impermissibly discriminatory policy, the court pointed out that the undisputed facts showed the county took an adverse action against a subset of older workers not because of their age but because it wished to preserve its supplemental insurance plan and to comply with federal law. Those reasonable factors other than age amply supported the county’s decision.
Equal protection. Finally, the court found that the plaintiffs’ equal protection argument failed for essentially the same reason that their McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting argument failed: They did not identify a suitable comparator group. Observing further that the Equal Protection Clause subjects age-based distinctions to rational-basis review, the court pointed out that the county chose to terminate a group of at-will part-time employees whose continued employment would have imperiled its fragile financial situation or jeopardized an insurance plan that benefited plaintiffs and many other retirees. Noting that the county’s choice preserved plaintiffs’ eligibility for the supplemental insurance, the court found that the choice was rational.
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