Thursday, February 21, 2008

Age discrimination law does not apply to Social Security Administration

The Second Circuit has never before decided whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to certain programs and activities of the Social Security Administration. Today was its big chance. It ruled in the negative.

The case is Maloney v. United States, decided on February 21 (Kearse, Leval and Cabranes). Maloney is a lawyer who wanted certain Social Security benefits upon retirement. The SSA and Maloney spent the next several years fighting over whether Maloney was actually retired and, when he returned to work, whether he was still eligible for benefits. In the end, he sued SSA for age discrimination. The issue here: does the ADEA apply to the Social Security Administration? Non-lawyers may ask, "why not?" Doesn't the law apply to everyone, even Federal agencies? Not always. As the Court of Appeals points out:

The Age Discrimination Act mandates that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of age, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under, any program or activity receiving [f]ederal financial assistance.” 42 U.S.C. § 6102. The statute, in turn, defines “program or activity” to encompass the operations of certain types of state and local governmental entities as well as educational institutions and private institutions.

As always in law, the devil is in the details. Is Maloney challenging a "program or activity receiving federal financial assistance?" The Court notes that "Plaintiffs point to no provision of the Age Discrimination Act—and we are aware of none—that would suggest that a federal agency, such as the SSA, comes within the statute’s reach." That doesn't end the inquiry, though. The Court notes further that it has never resolved this issue ("our Court has not yet had occasion to determine whether Social Security benefits or programs administered by the SSA are “programs or activities” within the meaning of the Age Discrimination Act").

So the Court looks to cases involving the application of other Federal civil rights statutes to these kinds of government programs. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has similar language about its application to "programs or activities." In Soberal-Perez v. Heckler, 717 F.2d 36 (2d Cir. 1983), the Court of Appeals ruled that Title VI -- which prohibits racial discrimination -- does not apply to the Social Security Administration. Summarizing the holding in Soberal-Perez, the Circuit stated:

After examining the language of Title VI, its legislative history, the relevant agency regulations, and the case law interpreting the statute, we found that the statute’s term “program or activity receiving [f]ederal financial assistance,” did not cover federal agencies administering their own budgets, such as the SSA. We concluded therefore that Title VI does not apply to programs directly administered by the federal government, explaining that “[Title VI] was meant to cover only those situations where federal funding is given to a non-federal entity which, in turn, provides financial assistance to the ultimate beneficiary."

As Title VI and the ADEA are similar statutes, the case law governing Title VI on this issue applies here. No remedy for Maloney, at least under the ADEA. Of course, the Court of Appeals reminds us that SSA still shouldn't discriminate on the basis of age. While this is no consolation to Maloney, the Circuit states that "The SSA’s exclusion from the remedial provisions of the Age Discrimination Act does not constitute a license to discriminate on the basis of age. When such discrimination occurs, 'the Constitution and the Social Security Act itself,' as well as other applicable statutes, may provide an appropriate remedy; we merely hold that the Age Discrimination Act does not."

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