Pa.: Court Must Face Age Discrimination Action by EEOC

By Rosemarie Lally Nov 21, 2014

An age discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a Pennsylvania county court is not barred by constitutional immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, a federal district court in Pennsylvania found, refusing to dismiss the case.

The EEOC had charged the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania, with violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act by firing a 70-year-old employee because of her age. According to the EEOC, Carolyn J. Pittman was assigned to work at the court by a staffing agency in February 2012. While Pittman was still in training, her supervisor complained that she was too old to work in the department. In March 2012, Pittman was told that her project had concluded, and that she would no longer be working at the court. The scanning project evidently continued after her departure and she allegedly was “replaced by at least one much younger worker.”

After unsuccessfully attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process, the EEOC filed suit in federal court. The Court of Common Pleas filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the action was barred by the Eleventh Amendment, which grants states limited sovereign immunity.

The federal district court rejected the state court’s argument, saying that in ratifying the Constitution, the states consented to suits brought by other states or by the Federal Government. Because suits by the United States against a state are not barred by the Constitution, and this action was brought by the EEOC, an instrumentality of the Federal Government, the Commonwealth’s Eleventh Amendment immunity is not implicated, the court found.

The court then examined whether the ADEA applied to the states. Originally, the ADEA specifically excluded the states from its statutory provision defining the class of covered employers, the court observed, but the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1974 broadened the ADEA’s definition of “employer” to include “a state or political subdivision of a state and any agency or instrumentality of a state or a political subdivision of a state.”

Although precedent exists indicating that private parties can’t maintain an ADEA action against their state employers, it is not applicable to “a suit commenced against a state in the name of the United States by those who are entrusted with the constitutional duty to ‘take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,’” the court said. Since the ADEA constitutes a valid exercise of Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the relevant statutory provisions can be enforced against states in actions brought by the EEOC, the court concluded.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, W.D. Pa., Civil Action No. 2:14-cv-00899 (Oct. 15, 2014).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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