Federal Court: Cleveland’s Mandatory Police and Fire Retirement at 65 is Legal

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) makes it unlawful “for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual…because of such individual’s age.” Simple, straight-forward, easy to read.

So when several Cleveland, Ohio police officers forced into retirement at age 65 sued the City for violating the ADEA, a similarly-worded Ohio state statute, and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, they should have very easily gotten their jobs back with an easy victory in federal court, right? Not so fast, said the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The City has had a mandatory retirement provision for Police and Fire Department personnel since 1960. The ordinance requires retirement at age 65. Employees can seek an extension of the mandatory retirement on a year-to-year basis upon written request to their chief and contingent on passing a medical examination declaring them fit for duty. Prior to 2010, all who passed the medical examination were granted extensions.

However, in 2009 and 2010, the City incurred huge budget deficits resulting in departmental budget cuts which in turn resulted in the layoff of 67 patrol officers and the demotion of 28 others. The Police Chief subsequently denied all mandatory retirement extension requests and the lawsuit was filed.

The Court pointed to an exemption in the ADEA that applies if a firefighter or law enforcement officer is over 55 years old and is discharged pursuant to a retirement plan “that is not a subterfuge to evade the purposes” of the ADEA. Since the City retirement ordinance exists, by its own terms, “in the interest of the Police Department’s efficiency,” the Court placed great emphasis in reaching its decision on the Chief’s stated intention to rehire laid-off officers and re-promote the demoted as serving greater efficiency than extending the careers of those who had reached 65 years of age and were presumably at the top of the wage scale.

The Court also found that the City had met its burden of establishing a non-discriminatory purpose due to both the language of the mandatory retirement ordinance and the Chief’s testimony that rehiring and re-promoting younger officers would make the Department more efficient than extending careers of those over the age of 65.

In addressing the Equal Protection claim, the Court ruled that 65-year-old police officers are not a suspect class entitled to greater protection, and continued government employment beyond age 65 is not a fundamental right. As such, the City only needed to show that its decision not to extend the mandatory retirements was rationally related to a legitimate purpose. Once again, returning younger officers from layoff and demotion was deemed a legitimate purpose that was rationally related to the decision not to extend the careers of older officers.

The Sadie case, like so many others before it, reminds us that mandatory retirement requirements do not necessarily implicate constitutional rights nor violate the ADEA. Absent an employer’s intent to specifically violate the ADEA and intentionally discriminate against older workers, something the aggrieved employee must prove, there is unlikely to be any recourse under the ADEA.

Sadie, et al. v. City of Cleveland, 2013 WL 2476729 (6th Cir. 2013).