Sixth Circuit Reinforces ADEA Exception in Age Discrimination Suit

Last week, the Sixth Circuit held that Cleveland’s mandatory retirement ordinance for police officers was “not a subterfuge” meant to circumvent the Age Discrimination in Employment Act’s requirements, and additionally that forced-out Cleveland police officers had no 14th Amendment claim. Sadie v. Cleveland, 6th Cir., No. 12-3142 (June 11, 2013).

In Sadie, five former Cleveland police officers brought suit under the ADEA and the 14th Amendment against the city of Cleveland and three city officials. Pursuant to a Cleveland local ordinance, the mandatory retirement age of police officers is set at 65. Up until 2010, however, no officer had been denied working beyond the age of 65 upon the passing of a medical exam. Yet, all officers age 65 and over were denied an extension in 2010 and were forced to turn in their badges. The officers argued that the city’s actions showed discriminatory animus and an express preference for younger workers.

Cleveland, as with other state and local governments, utilizes an exception found in 29 U.S.C. § 623(j). This provision specifically allows for a mandatory discharge for police officers over the age of 55 pursuant to a retirement plan “that is not a subterfuge to evade the purposes” of the ADEA. The Cleveland Police Chief’s justification for the denial of extensions was based on a 2010 budget cut of 4.17% and recent layoffs within the force. Instead of providing extensions for those turning 65, the department decided to rehire laid-off police officers. In finding that the actions were not a “subterfuge,” the Court noted that the ADEA expressly allows local governments “to terminate police and fire officers on the basis of their age pursuant to mandatory-retirement provisions.” The officers 14th Amendment claim also failed, as the department’s proffered justification – the budget deficit – was rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

The immediate impact of Sadie is not clear. Cleveland’s official purpose for the mandatory retirement ordinance is based on promoting the efficiency of the local police department. Even though Cleveland expressly favored laid-off workers over those turning 65, the efficiency justification, plus the recent budget deficit and budget cuts within the department, provided a sufficient rationalization to invoke the ADEA exception. It seems that going forward, local governments could feasibly utilize mandatory retirement provisions in the wake of recent budget cuts with no pushback from the ADEA. Here, the fact that the officers had never previously been denied an extension, at the same time the department faced a budget crunch, proved to be sufficient circumstances for the Sixth Circuit to find the city’s decision not to be a subterfuge. Whether or not Cleveland could have invoked the ordinance without evidence of a budget cut – or cuts at a specified percent – is unclear, and could be a unique issue going forward.

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