Low Constitutional Threshold For Firefighters’ Age Discrimination Claims

Warren Chase was hired by the Los Angeles County Fire Department in April 1986 as a firefighter, and was later promoted to captain. When he reached age 60 in the year 2000, he was forced to retire under the mandatory retirement provisions of California state law. Chase then sued the County, contending that his forced retirement violated his constitutional rights. Chase claimed that the statutes authorizing his mandatory retirement at age 60, while permitting other safety members of the retirement system to work beyond age 60, violated his constitutional right to equal protection of the laws.

The California Court of Appeals rejected Chase’s lawsuit. The Court noted that age discrimination claims are analyzed under a “deferential rational basis” standard, and that “the drawing of lines that create distinctions on the basis of age is not peculiarly a legislative task.” The Court found that the grandfathering provisions of California law – that employees hired after 1997 are not subject to mandatory age-based retirement – did not violate the low threshold of the “rational basis test.”

As described by the Court, “the Legislature has permitted counties to terminate mandatory retirement provisions, but only for newly-hired employees. The statutes provide counties with flexibility to make adjustments in their retirement systems to ensure the fiscal integrity of pension plans. Accordingly, whether the classification challenged is viewed as an age classification or, perhaps more accurately, as a classification based on the date of employment, its irrational basis is not open to question. No violation of equal protection principles occurred.”

Chase v. County of Los Angeles, 2007 WL 646241 (Cal.App. 2007).

This article appears in the May 2007 issue