Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio v. Betts/Dissent Marshall

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Dissenting Opinion

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

The majority today immunizes virtually all employee benefit programs from liability under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA or Act), 29 .S.C. § 621 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V). Henceforth, liability will not attach under the ADEA even if an employer is unable to put forth any justification for denying older workers the benefits younger ones receive, and indeed, even if his only reason for discriminating against older workers in benefits is his abject hostility to, or his unfounded stereotypes, of them. In reaching this surprising result, the majority casts aside the estimable wisdom of all five Courts of Appeals to consider the ADEA's applicability to benefit programs, of the two federal agencies which have administered the Act, and of the Acting Solicitor General on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as amicus curiae, all of whom have concluded that it contravenes the text and history of the Act to immunize discrimination against older workers in benefit plans which is not justified by any business purpose. Agreeing with these authorities, and finding the majority's "plain language" interpretation impossibly tortured and antithetical to the ADEA's goal of eradicating baseless discrimination against older workers, I dissent.

It is common ground that appellant Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio (PERS) discriminated against appellee June Betts on account of her age. Ante, at 163-165. Had Betts become disabled before, rather than after, turning 60, PERS would be paying her $355.02 a month in disability benefits for the rest of her life, more than double the $158.50 a month she is now entitled to collect. It is also common ground that PERS' facially discriminatory provision was enacted after the ADEA's passage in 1967, and therefore is subject to the Act's broad antidiscrimination command, § 4(a)(1), 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1), ante, at 169, [1] and that PERS is liable to Betts for the difference between the monthly sums noted above unless PERS' benefit plan falls within the § 4(f)(2) exemption, 29 U.S.C. § 623(f)(2). Ante, at 165-166/ Finally, it is common ground that, based on PERS' refusal to offer any explanation for the age-specific benefits it provides, its disparate treatment of older employees lacked any business justification whatsoever; indeed, the cost to PERS of its disability plan varied not at all with an employee's age. Ante, at 164-165. [2] For want of a better explanation, one is left to conclude that PERS denied benefits to those employees who became disabled after turning 60 solely because it wished to cut its overall disability outlays-and that PERS viewed older workers as a convenient target for its budgetary belt tightening.

This case thus presents the issue whether a benefit plan which arbitrarily imposes disparate burdens on older workers can claim succor under § 4(f)(2) from age discrimination liability. The majority arrives at the novel conclusion that the ADEA exempts from liability all di criminatory benefit programs, regardless of their justification, unless the discrimination implicates aspects of the employment relationship unrelated to the provision of benefits, and then only if the discrimination violates "the substantive provisions of the Act." Ante, at 176. The majority acknowledges that this reading shelters from the ADEA's purview all but a few hypothetical types of benefit plan age discrimination, [3] leaving older workers unprotected from baseless discrimination insofar as it affects the often considerable portion of overall compensation comprised by employee benefits. Ante, at 177, 181. The majority thus scuttles the heretofore consensus, and in my view correct, interpretation that the § 4(f)(2) exemption is limited to those programs whose disparate treatment is justified by a plausible business purpose.

To reach the result it does, the majority uses an interpretive methodology, purportedly one parsing § 4(f)(2)'s "plain language," which is so manipulative as virtually to invite the charge of result-orientation. Ordinarily, we ascertain the meaning of a statutory provision by looking to its text, and, if the statutory language is unclear, to its legislative history. Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 896, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 1547, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984). Where these barometers offer ambiguous guidance as to Congress' intent, we defer to the interpretations of the provision articulated by the agencies responsible for its enforcement, so long as these agency interpretations are "based on a permissible construction of the statute." Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 2782, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984); see also Bethesda Hospital Assn. v. Bowen, 485 U.S. 399, 403, 108 S.Ct. 1255, 1258, 99 L.Ed.2d 460 (1988); K mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291, 108 S.Ct. 1811, 1818, 100 L.Ed.2d 313 (1988).

Eschewing this approach, the majority begins its analysis not by seeking to glean meaning from the statute, but by launching a no-holds-barred attack on the business purpose reading of § 4(f)(2). Ante, at 169-170. Disaggregating the sentence that is § 4(f)(2) [4] into two portions, the majority concludes that the business purpose test is irreconcilable with the "plain language" of the "subterfuge" portion, ante, at 170-172, and also cannot be inferred from the text of the portion enumerating types of employee benefit plans, ante, at 173-175. En route to interring the consensus interpretation of § 4(f)(2), the majority pauses not a moment on the provision's purposes or legislative history. Only after burial, and almost by afterthought, does the majority attempt to come up with its own interpretation of the exemption, hastily proceeding to divine the capacious alternative reading outlined earlier.

There are deep problems with the majority's interpretive methodology, chief among them its unwillingness to apply the same unforgiving textual analysis to its reading of the § 4(f)(2) exemption as it does to the consensus reading, and its selective use of legislative history to suggest that Congress contemplated the draconian interpretation of § 4(f)(2) the majority divines. A conventional analysis of § 4(f)(2) illu inates these methodological lapses, and yields a very different result.

Beginning with the text, the only thing plain about § 4(f)(2)'s spare language is that it offers no explicit command as to what heuristic test those applying it should use. In dispatching the consensus reading, the majority makes much of the fact that "[t]he requirement that employers show a cost-based justification for age-related reductions in benefits appears nowhere in the statute itself." Ante, at 170. This truism, is, however, equally applicable to the complex construction the majority adopts, under which all but certain limited species of benefit plan discrimination are exempted from the ADEA, and under which the burden of proving non-exemption is shouldered by the ADEA plaintiff. [5] Indeed, the fact that § 4(f)(2) enumerates various types of benefit programs eligible for exemption from the ADEA's nondiscrimination command but makes no mention of disability programs strongly undercuts the majority's assertion that the text compels exemption here. This is a case in which only so much blood can be squeezed from the textual stone, and in which one therefore must turn to other sources of statutory meaning.

The structure of § 4(f)(2), on the other hand, provides considerable support for the business purpose interpretation. The majority views § 4(f)(2) as involving two separate clauses, with the first enumerating, for no apparent reason, three types of benefit plans, and the second, the "subterfuge" clause, making § 4(f)(2)'s exemption applicable except where a benefit plan is created with a "specific 'intent . . . to evade' " the ADEA. Ante, at 171 (citation omitted). This reading has the perverse consequence of denying the § 4(f)(2) exemption only to subtle acts of discrimination effected through a stratagem or other artifice of discrimination, while leaving it intact for those age-based distinctions like PERS which, though arbitrary, are so brazenly discriminatory in disentitling older workers to benefits that they cannot possibly warrant the "subterfuge" characterization. It is difficult to believe that Congress, in passing the ADEA, intended to immunize acts of unabashed discrimination against older workers.

A far more sensible structural interpretation regards the § 4(f)(2) sentence as a synthetic whole. Under this reading, the initial enumeration of "a retirement, pension, or insurance plan" serves a concrete purpose: it gives content to the ensuing word "subterfuge." All the enumerated benefit plans commonly-indeed, almost invariably-entail costs that rise with the age of the beneficiary; thus, an employer whose benefit plan treats older workers less favorably than younger ones though spending the same amount on each employee, typically has a cost-based reason for doing so. By this reading, an employer with an economic justification cannot properly be viewed as having resorted to subterfuge to evade the ADEA's command against irrelevant age distinctions. Unlike the majority's artificial bifurcation of § 4(f)(2), this holis ic interpretation does not excuse express acts of unjustified age discrimination like PERS', while punishing only evasive or subtle discrimination. Significantly, all the Courts of Appeals to consider § 4(f)(2) have concluded that the enumeration of benefit plans where age and cost generally correlate sheds considerable light on the scope of the exemption. [6] And once the possibility of this interpretation is admitted, the majority's sole ground for rejecting the business purpose interpretation-that it clashes with the "plain language of the statute," ante, at 171-necessarily falls away.

The majority's reliance on the text of the statute as a basis for rejecting the business purpose test is, finally, made puzzling in light of its concession that its "construction of the words of the statute is not the only plausible one." Ante, at 177. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the majority is using two different standards of textual analysis: the business purpose interpretation fails because the plain language of the statute does not command it, but the majority's interpretation succeeds because the plain language of the statute does not preclude it.

Given, then, that some ambiguity remains under any fair reading of § 4(f)(2)'s text and structure, it therefore is appropriate to consult its legislative history. This history convincingly supports the holistic reading and the business purpose interpretation derived therefrom. As initially introduced by Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1967, § 4(f)(2) did not recognize any circumstances that might authorize age discrimination in the provision of fringe benefits. Instead, it sheltered only the employer who "separate[s] involuntarily an employee under a retirement policy or system where such policy or system is not merely a subterfuge to evade the purposes of this Act." S. 830, 90th Cong., 1st Sess. (1967). [7]

Several Senators, however, led by Senator Jacob Javits, urged that employers, in fashioning benefit programs, be allowed to consider cost differentials between benefits provided to older employees and those provided to younger ones. During Senate hearings on the bill which became the ADEA, Senator Javits criticized the initial version of § 4(f)(2), stating that that version did "not provide any flexibility in the amount of pension benefits payable to older workers depending on their age when hired." Age Discrimination in Employment: Hearings on S. 830 and S. 788 before the Subcommittee on Labor of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., 27 (1967). Employers "faced with the necessity of paying greatly increased premiums," Senator Javits feared, might "look for excuses not to hire older workers." Ibid. Senator George Smathers, a cosponsor of the initial bill, acknowledged in response that the bill would not permit employers to vary benefit levels to take into account the greater expense of providing some fringe benefits to older workers. Id., at 29-30. He proposed amending it to permit such variations. The following day, Senator Javits proposed, as a means of incorporating his and Senator Smathers' concerns, an amendment which incorporated essentially the present language enumerating specific types of benefit plans. 113 Cong.Rec. 7077 (1967). The Javits proposal, which was ultimately adopted and which underwent only peripheral changes before the Act's enactment, was designed to ensure, in its sponsor's words, that "an employer will not be compelled to afford older workers exactly the same pension, retirement, or insurance benefits as younger workers and thus employers will not, because of the often extremely high cost of providing certain types of benefits to older workers, actually be discouraged from hiring older workers." 113 Cong.Rec. 31254-31255 (1967) (emphasis added).

The history of § 4(f)(2) militates in favor of the business purpose interpretation in several respects. First, it demonstrates that the sponsors of the exemption intended to protect benefit plans with economic justifications for treating older workers disparately, and did not intend categorically to immunize benefit plans from liability for unjustified discrimination. See FEA v. Algonquin SNG, Inc., 426 U.S. 548, 564, 96 S.Ct. 2295, 2304, 49 L.Ed.2d 49 (1976) (statements of sponsors "deserv[e] to be accorded substantial weight in interpreting the statute"). [8] Second, this history undercuts the majority's contention that the § 4(f)(2) term "subterfuge to evade the purposes of the Act" supports the broad exemption of benefit plans from coverage. That phrase predated the Javits amendment, and was part of the bill when it did not authorize any age-based discrimination in the provision of benefits. The language broadening the exemption must come instead from the enumeration language added at Senator Javits' behest, language most properly read to import only the business purpose test. Third, at no point during the debate on § 4(f)(2) did any legislator come even remotely close to endorsing the construction of § 4(f)(2) chosen by the majority. This silence is hardly surprising, given that an unqualified exemption contravenes Congress' overarching goal in passing the ADEA of protecting older workers against arbitrary discrimination. The business purpose test, on the other hand, advances this goal, playing the hardly radical role of ensuring that, where no justification exists for disparate age-based treatment, older workers are not saddled with burdens that should be shared by all workers or by their employer. [9]

Even if I did not strongly believe that the text and structure of the § 4(f)(2) exemption, as informed by its legislative history, limit the exemption to benefit plans whose discrimination against older workers rests on some business justification, I would still conclude that adoption of the business purpose test is mandated under Chevron § admonishment to defer to enforcement agencies' reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutory provisions. See Western Air Lines, Inc. v. Criswell, 472 U.S. 400, 412, 105 S.Ct. 2743, 2750, 86 L.Ed.2d 321 (1985) (deferring to Department of Labor and EEOC on interpretation of ADEA). Shortly after the ADEA's passage, the Department of Labor, which originally administered the Act, interpreted § 4(f)(2) to allow employers to discriminate on the basis of age in the provision of employee benefits, but only where providing such benefits was more expensive for older workers. See 29 CFR § 860.120(a) (1970). Where cost did not vary with age, the Department of Labor concluded, § 4(f)(2) did not exempt from ADEA scrutiny discriminatory benefit programs. See § 860.120(b) ("Not all employee benefit plans, but only those similar to the kind enumerated in section 4(f)(2) of the Act come within this provision," and thus profit-sharing and other plans lacking an economic basis for discriminating against older workers were not exempted by § 4(f)(2)); 34 Fed.Reg. 9709 (1969) (same). [10] The EEOC, to which responsibility for enforcing the ADEA was transferred in 1979, adopted in toto Labor's business purpose interpretation of § 4(f)(2). The EEOC's regulations state that § 4(f)(2)'s purpose "is to permit age-based reductions in employee benefit plans where such reductions are justified by significant cost considerations." 29 CFR § 1625.10(a)(1) (1988) (emphasis added). [11] The majority's derogation of this dual agency interpretation leaves one to wonder why, when important civil rights laws are at issue, the Court fails to adhere with consiste cy to its so often espoused policy of deferring to expert agency judgment on ambiguous statutory questions. See, e.g., General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125, 155-156, 97 S.Ct. 401, 417-418, 50 L.Ed.2d 343 (1976) (BRENNAN, J., dissenting).

The majority today puts aside conventional tools of statutory construction and, relying instead on artifice and invention, arrives at a draconian interpretation of the ADEA which Congress most assuredly did not contemplate, let alone share, in 1967, in 1978, or now. Because I cannot accept that it is the ADEA's command to give employers a free hand to fashion discriminatory benefit programs, I dissent.


  1. I agree with the majority that neither our decision in United Air Lines, Inc. v. McMann, 434 U.S. 192, 98 S.Ct. 444, 54 L.Ed.2d 402 (1977), involving a plan with a mandatory retirement provision adopted prior to the passage of the ADEA, nor Congress' 1978 amendment of § 4(f)(2) in response to McMann, controls this case. Ante, at 167-169.
  2. It is no answer to surmise that providing disability benefits to an older worker costs more than providing equivalent benefits to a younger worker, as is typically the case with life insurance benefits. PERS, after all, provided full monthly benefits to employees over 60, so long as they had become disabled prior to attaining that age. The sole distinction PERS drew was based on an employee's age at disability, a factor that does not correlate with the cost to an employer of providing benefits. Indeed, insofar as an employer is concerned about the cumulative cost of providing benefits during the remaining life of a disabled employee, this concern militates in favor of older workers, whose predicted lifespans are shorter than those of younger workers.
  3. For example, if an employer refuses to provide benefits to an older worker in retaliation for filing a claim under the ADEA, a claim challenging that refusal would be cognizable. Ante, at 180.
  4. Section 4(f)(2) provides that it is not unlawful for an employer "to observe the terms of . . . any bona fide employee benefit plan such as a retirement, pension, or insurance plan, which is not a subterfuge to evade the purposes of this chapter, except that no such employee benefit plan shall excuse the failure to hire any individual, and no such . . . employee benefit plan shall require or permit the involuntary retirement of any individual . . . because of the age of such individual." 29 U.S.C. § 623(f)(2).
  5. The majority's holding that the employee bears the heavy burden of proving not only that a discriminatory benefit plan implicates nonbenefit aspects of employment, but also that it was intended to discriminate, strikes a further blow against the statutory rights of older workers. Ante, at 182. It is one thing for an employee to prove discrimination against older workers. It is considerably more difficult to prove that an employer undertook such discrimination with unlawful motives. In light of the severe evidentiary and practical obstacles, where discrimination in nonfringe-benefit aspects of the employment relationship has been proved, a more appropriate approach would place the burden on the employer to show that the discrimination was not born of improper intent. See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642, 668, 109 S.Ct. 2115, 2130-2131, 104 L.Ed.2d 733 (1989) (STEVENS, J., dissenting).
  6. See Betts v. Hamilton County Bd. of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 848 F.2d 692 (CA6 1988) (case below); EEOC v. Mt. Lebanon, 842 F.2d 1480 (CA3 1988); Karlen v. City Colleges of Chicago, 837 F.2d 314 (CA7 1988); Cipriano v. Board of Ed. of North Tonawanda School Dist., 785 F.2d 51 (CA2 1986); EEOC v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 725 F.2d 211 (CA3 1983), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 820, 105 S.Ct. 92, 83 L.Ed.2d 38 (1984); EEOC v. Borden's, Inc., 724 F.2d 1390 (CA9 1984). It is true that these courts took slightly divergent analytic paths to this common result: some have interpreted § 4(f)(2) ab initio and others have deferred to the EEOC's statutory reading to this effect; some have imputed the business purpose requirement to the term "subterfuge" and others have instead attributed it to § 4(f)(2) more generally. This divergence, however, in no way vitiates the significance of the Courts of Appeals' unanimity that the statute supports the business purpose requirement.
  7. The narrow scope of this initial exemption may have reflected the fact that Congress was aware that employers at that time did not regard as a major concern the benefit-program costs associated with older workers. See, e.g., Report of the Secretary of Labor to the Congress Under Section 715 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Older American Worker: Age Discrimination in Employment 16 (1965) ("Relatively few employers . . . cited the costs of providing pension and insurance benefits as significant barriers to employment of older persons").
  8. The majority attempts to appropriate Senator Javits by stringing together fragments of his comments on the Senate floor. The majority cites his statement that " 'the age discrimination law is not the proper place to fight' the battle of ensuring 'adequate pension benefits for older workers.' " Ante, at 179, quoting 113 Cong.Rec. 7076 (1967). But as the EEOC notes, this remark, read in proper context, does not suggest that "any type of discrimination in the provision of employee benefits should be permissible under the ADEA," but makes the more limited point that certain existing pension plans with lengthy vesting periods "should be changed by comprehensive pension legislation rather than by an age discrimination statute." Brief for EEOC as Amicus Curiae 17, n. 9 (emphasis added). Senator Javits eve tually proposed, and won the enactment of, such legislation. See 29 U.S.C. § 1053 (1982 ed. and Supp. V). Similarly, Senator Javits' statement that amended § 4(f)(2) provides " 'a fairly broad exemption . . . for bona fide retirement and seniority systems,' " ante, at 179, quoting 113 Cong.Rec. 7076 (1967), fully accords with the business purpose test. That test exempts from § 4(f)(2)'s coverage any act of age discrimination with some legitimate business basis-leaving unprotected only the presumably narrow band of benefit programs, like PERS, which practice unjustified age discrimination.
  9. That Congress viewed the § 4(f)(2) exemption as bounded by a business purpose requirement was, if anything, confirmed in 1978, when Congress added a clause in response to United Air Lines, Inc. v. McMann, 434 U.S. 192, 98 S.Ct. 444, 54 L.Ed.2d 402 (1977). In rejecting a claim that a plan adopted before the ADEA's enactment could be a subterfuge, McMann declined to hold that a "per se rule requir[ed] an employer to show an economic or business purpose in order to satisfy the subterfuge language of the Act." 434 U.S., at 203, 98 S.Ct., at 450. This statement, referring only to pre-ADEA plans, left open the issue of a per se business purpose rule for discriminatory plan provisions adopted after the Act's passage. Reiterating the need for an economic justification for discrimination, Senator Javits stated during the 1978 debate: "The meaning of the exception, as I stated in [the 1967] colloquy with Senator Yarborough on the Senate floor, was that an 'employer will not be compelled under this section to afford to older workers exactly the same pension, retirement, or insurance benefits as he affords to younger workers.' " 124 Cong.Rec. 8218 (1978). The Senator explained that "[w]elfare benefit levels for older workers may be reduced only to the extent necessary to achieve approximate equivalency in contributions for older and younger workers." Ibid.
  10. The majority's dismissal of this administrative interpretation of § 4(f)(2) on the ground that it was not contemporaneously issued is disingenuous. In the majority's view, the Department of Labor initially articulated a broad "safe harbor" exemption for benefit programs, and only in 1979 revised its interpretation to adopt the business purpose test. Ante, at 171-172. The sole support the majority adduces for this proposition is the Department of Labor's 1969 regulation providing that age-related benefit reductions would be " 'considered in compliance with the statute' " if cost justified. Ante, at 171, quoting 29 CFR § 860.120(a) (1970). This regulation does not demonstrate that Labor was applying a business purpose test, the majority suggests, apparently because the regulation failed explicitly to state the corollary proposition that non-cost-justified plans fall outside the statutory exemption. This tenuous reading fails to explain (1) why Labor saw a need to include the cost-justification qualification in its reading of the exemption; (2) why Labor stated that profit-sharing plans, lacking an economic basis for age discriminating, fall outside the exemption; and (3) why Labor, in its 1979 pronouncement, in no way suggested it was changing its construction of § 4(f)(2).
  11. See also 29 CFR § 1625.10(a)(1) (1988) ("A benefit plan will be considered in compliance with the statute where the actual amount of payment made, or cost incurred, in behalf of an older worker is equal to that made or incurred in behalf of a younger worker, even though the older worker may thereby receive a lesser amount of benefits or insurance coverage"); § 1625.10(d) ("[A] plan or plan provision which prescribes lower benefits for older employees on account of age is not a 'subterfuge' within the meaning of section 4(f)(2), provided that the lower level of benefits is justified by age-related cost considerations").

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).