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3 Supreme Court Cases That Could Affect Older Workers

Age discrimination, disability benefits and mandatory arbitration are some of the key issues



The U.S. Supreme Court started its 2018 term this week. The eight justices currently on the court will hear arguments in several cases that could affect the rights of older workers. Among the key issues in those suits are:

Age discrimination in public jobs

Private employers who run businesses that have fewer than 20 employees are exempt from the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which is the federal law that protects older workers from age discrimination. In Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, the issue is whether small public agencies also are excluded from ADEA requirements. In 2009, two firefighters — ages 46 and 54 at that time — were fired by the Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona. The firefighters filed an age discrimination lawsuit under the ADEA, and the federal district court ruled in favor of the fire department. But the federal circuit court ruled for the two firefighters.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could have a wide impact for older adults working for local and state governments across the country. If the high court decides these small agencies don’t have to follow the federal age discrimination law, these workers will have to rely on whatever protections their states’ laws provide.

Social Security disability benefits

More than 2 million people apply for Social Security disability benefits each year. To be eligible, a medical condition must prevent the applicants from working — either in their current positions or other jobs they might be qualified to do — for at least 12 straight months. In many cases, an administrative law judge decides whether a disability applicant is capable of working. In Biestek v. Berryhill, the Supreme Court will decide whether an administrative judge can rely solely on expert testimony, without the underlying data on which the testimony is based, or if more evidence is needed.

Michael Biestek, a carpenter, applied for Social Security disability benefits when he was unable to work due to a degenerative disc disease. When he was originally denied benefits, Biestek asked for an administrative hearing to appeal the decision. In that hearing, a vocational expert testified that there were a variety of jobs still available to Biestek despite his condition. But when the former carpenter asked the expert to provide more information about the jobs, the administrative law judge said the expert did not have to respond. The judge ultimately denied Biestek disability benefits.

According to at least three federal circuit courts, experts in these types of hearings aren’t required to produce evidence that the jobs they say the applicants are suitable for actually exist. The Supreme Court’s ruling on what type of evidence is required in these hearings will play a major role in determining how decisions are made to approve or deny disability benefits to those applying for them.

Independent contractors’ access to court

Jobs such as driving for Uber or Lyft can be particularly appealing for older workers and retirees, who basically become independent contractors when they do these kinds of jobs. One case before the Supreme Court this term, New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, could potentially affect whether independent contractors who work in transportation are able to take their employment disputes to the courts instead of to arbitration.

The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) permits companies to require their employees to agree to resolve disagreements in arbitration. But that law has an exemption for “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” One question the Supreme Court will answer in the New Prime case is whether this exception applies to independent contractors or just employees.

Dominic Oliveira worked as a driver for New Prime, an interstate trucking company. He began as an independent contractor and later was hired as an employee. In 2015, he filed a suit against the company saying that New Prime violated Missouri’s minimum wage statute, among other complaints. New Prime then tried to force the dispute into arbitration, eventually leading the case to the Supreme Court this term. Both the federal district and circuit courts ruled for Oliveira.

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