By Allison Stevens
Washington Bureau Chief
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
The Supreme Court heard an age - discrimination case Monday brought by a woman who lost her job at 51. Even though more men file such complaints women are more likely to need jobs when they are older and could have more at stake.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Represented by her lawyer, Ellen Mendelsohn asked the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to ease the burden of proof for victims of age discrimination by allowing the "me too" evidence of other workers with similar complaints.
But in the oral arguments Monday the justices did little to raise Mendelsohn's hopes.
Chief Justice John Roberts and other justices suggested that allowing "me too" evidence could glut the court system with a preponderance of testimony.
"We'll have trials that last 1,000 years," warned Justice Stephen Breyer.
Mendelsohn, a former midlevel manager at a Sprint subsidiary in Kansas City, Mo., lost her job in 2002 at age 51, when she was the oldest manager in her unit. She sued, alleging unfair treatment because of her age, and sought to bring evidence from fellow employees with similar complaints. Sprint argued that testimony from other witnesses would be irrelevant because it involved supervisors who were not involved in Mendelsohn's suit.
A district judge refused to admit the "me too" evidence, but an appellate court judge disagreed and ordered a new trial. Sprint appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case last June so it could provide guidance on the issue to lower courts.
Age discrimination is certainly not only a women's rights concern.
In a book published in 2001 on the topic, "Age Discrimination in the American Workplace: Old at a Young Age," Raymond Gregory, a retired attorney who specialized in the issue in his New York practice, writes that nearly two-thirds of all age-discrimination cases in 1997 were brought by men.
But even though women may file fewer complaints, Gregory says women start complaining of discrimination at younger ages.
Loss of employment, meanwhile, can be harder on women, says Erica Williams, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
The combination of women earning less throughout their lifetimes, having less in the way of pensions or retirement accounts and having a longer life expectancy means that women in older age are more likely to be poor or disabled, to live alone, to rely on a single income or to depend on public service programs, says Williams.
"All of that has important implications for older women who are trying to secure some employment in their retirement-age years," Williams said. "If they're also facing age discrimination, they may not be able to get a job to help them supplement Social Security benefits or what little retirement income they have."
Women begin to report age discrimination at age 40, a full decade before men begin to complain about it, Gregory said in an interview. And women are filing complaints in greater numbers as they pick up parity in the workplace.
Anti-ageism activists say both sexes battle the perception that midlife and older people are less productive and less able to keep up with technological advances in the w