A new federal appeals court ruling could set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether contributing equal amounts for young and old pension plan members amounts to age discrimination.
A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Chicago that International Business Machines Corp., Armonk, N.Y., had a legal right under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act to convert to a “cash balance” pension plan formula, from a traditional formula in the 1990s.
“Replacing a plan that discriminates against the young with one that is age-neutral does not discriminate against the old,” Judge Frank Easterbrook writes in an opinion for the 7th Circuit panel.
Older employers have joined in class-action lawsuits against IBM, arguing that the conversion discriminated against them.
A tradition pension plan formula is designed in such a way that employers contribute more for older employees and less for younger employees. Interest on pension plan assets is supposed to give otherwise identical older employees and younger employees identical pension benefits when they reach the plan retirement age.
A cash balance plan is designed in such a way that an employer contributes identical amounts each year for employees with identical levels, regardless of the employees’ ages or years of service.
Although IBM said it would contribute the same amount for older and younger workers, and set up a transition program to buffer older workers against changes in the plan design, the older employees have argued that the cash balance plan conversion is unfair to them because they will have less time than younger IBM employees to earn interest on their share of IBM’s pension plan assets.