OCTOBER TERM, 2003
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
No. 02-1080. Argued November 12, 2003—Decided February 24, 2004
A collective-bargaining agreement between petitioner company and a union eliminated the company's obligation to provide health benefits to subsequently retired employees, except as to then-current workers at least 50 years old. Respondent employees (collectively, Cline)—who were then at least 40 and thus protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), but under 50 and so without promise of the benefits—claimed before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that the agreement violated the ADEA because it "discriminate[d against them] . . . because of [their] age," 29 U. S. C. § 623(a)(1). The EEOC agreed, and invited the company and the union to settle informally with Cline. When they failed, Cline brought this action under the ADEA and state law. The District Court dismissed, calling the federal claim one of "reverse age discrimination" upon which no court had ever granted relief under the ADEA, and relying on a Seventh Circuit decision holding that the ADEA does not protect younger workers against older workers. The Sixth Circuit reversed, reasoning that § 623(a)(1)'s prohibition of discrimination is so clear on its face that if Congress had meant to limit its coverage to protect only the older worker against the younger, it would have said so. The court acknowledged that its ruling conflicted with earlier cases, but criticized those decisions for paying too much attention to the general language of Congress's ADEA findings. The court also drew support from the EEOC's position in an interpretive regulation.
Held: The ADEA's text, structure, purpose, history, and relationship to other federal statutes show that the statute does not mean to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one. Pp. 586-600. 1. The ADEA's prohibition covers "discriminat[ion] . . . because of [an] individual's age" that helps the younger by hurting the older. In the abstract, that phrase is open to the broader construction that it also prohibits favor for the old over the young, since § 623(a)(1)'s reference to "age" carries no express modifier, and the word could be read to look two ways. This more expansive possible understanding does not, however, square with the natural reading of the whole provision prohib-
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