The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) protects individuals who are at least 40 years of age from discrimination in the workplace. As such, the outcome of disparate-impact claims under the ADEA hinges, ordinarily, on whether or not an employer’s facially neutral-policy has a disparate impact on employees who are 40 years of age or older. On January 10, 2017, the Third Circuit, in Karlo v. Pittsburgh Glass Works, LLC, 2017 BL 6064 (3d Cir. 2017), issued a precedential ruling, holding that disparate impact claims under the ADEA are not limited to comparisons of the impact an employer’s policy has on employees over 40 with the impact to employees under 40. Rather, the Third Circuit found that claims premised on an allegation that an employer’s policy impacted workers over the age of 50 are cognizable under the ADEA even when the policy had no disparate impact when employees in their forties were considered.

The defendant employer in Karlo terminated approximately 100 employees through a series of reductions in force (“RIFs”). While the impact of the RIFs did not have a disparate impact when comparing employees under the age of 40 with those over the age of 40, the plaintiffs in Karlo, all 50 years of age or older, asserted an ADEA claim premised on the allegation that the RIFs had a disparate impact on employees who were 50 or older. Rejecting the defendant employer’s argument that the disparate impact claim failed because no evidence of disparity existed when the younger members of the protected category (employees between the age of 40 and 50) were considered with the employees over the age of 50, the Third Circuit opined that: “The ADEA prohibits disparate impact based on age, not forty-and-older identity,” and that “requiring the comparison group to include employees in their forties has no logical connection to that prohibition.”

The Third Circuit’s decision creates a split among the federal appeals courts on whether the ADEA permits disparate impact claims by subgroups of workers in the “40-and-over” protected category when the alleged bias disproportionately impacts older workers within that protected class. The ruling rejects the view of the Second Circuit (Lowe v. Commack Union Free Sch. Dist., 886 F.2d 1364 (2d Cir. 1989)), Sixth Circuit (Smith v. Tenn. Valley Auth., 924 F.2d 1059 (6th Cir. 1991)), and Eighth Circuit (E.E.O.C. v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 191 F.3d 948 (8th Cir. 1999), that such claims are not allowed.

The Third Circuit correctly recognized that its decision “may very well require employers to be more vigilant about the effects of their employment practices.” The ruling that disparate impact claims may be asserted by subgroups within the protected category of employees over the age of 40 most definitely complicates employers’ ability to effectuate workforce reductions. Before approving a proposed RIF, retail employers concerned with avoiding potential disparate impact claims cannot simply satisfy themselves that employees over and under the age of 40 are treated fairly. Retail employers now need to check for age-based impacts across different strata of their employees over the age of 40.