Schenectady County

KAPL workers win ruling

Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories workers who claimed they were fired because of their age won an imp

Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories workers who claimed they were fired because of their age won an important victory Thursday as the U.S. Supreme Court sided with them, sending the case back for further argument.

The ruling, experts said, will make it easier for employees to prove they have suffered discrimination because of their age.

In a 7-1 ruling, the court said that when older workers are disproportionately affected by an employment decision, the employer bears the burden of explaining whether there was a reasonable cause, other than age, for the company’s action.

The KAPL case involves workers over age 40 who challenged their dismissals from jobs at Knolls in Niskayuna. Thirty of the 31 workers laid off by the lab in 1996 were over 40. Twenty-six of those employees sued Knolls, claiming that the layoffs violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Attorney John DuCharme, who represented the employees, said his clients are excited about the development.

“The burden now shifts back to the employer to show what they did was reasonable,” DuCharme said. “It’s a much less complicated approach than when we tried the case.”

The high court ruling follows one in 2006 from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which voted 2-1 to overturn a 2000 jury verdict that awarded the former Knolls employees a total of $5.4 million.

Now the case goes back to the appeals court for further arguments.

Knolls spokeswoman Anne LaRoche said in a statement, “KAPL continues to believe that the process used in the 1996 reduction in force was fair and consistent with the law.” She declined to comment further, citing the ongoing litigation.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday, Justice David Souter acknowledged in his majority opinion that the decision “makes it harder and costlier to defend” age discrimination lawsuits. But Souter said, “We have to read it the way Congress wrote it.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a brief dissent.

The Knolls lab has worked on nuclear-powered warships for more than 50 years. The lab had to reduce the number of employees in the mid-1990s following the end of the Cold War. Even after roughly 100 employees took buyouts, the lab still needed to eliminate jobs.

The older workers who were laid off sued, claiming both that the company intended to discriminate on the basis of age and that the results of the layoffs were discriminatory. A jury agreed with the lab that there was no proof of discriminatory intent but found that there was age discrimination in the effect of the layoffs.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Knolls.

Justice Stephen Breyer did not take part in the case. He owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in State Street Corp. common stock, according to his 2008 financial disclosure report. State Street owns more than 18 percent of Lockheed Martin Corp., which owns Knolls.

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