Members of the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled 5-4 in favor of a disability retirement benefits program set up by an agency that runs benefit plans for Kentucky public employees.
The agency, Kentucky Retirement Systems, pays only the normal retirement benefits for older workers who work past the usual retirement age and then become disabled, rather than the higher benefits paid to younger workers who become disabled. That design does not discriminate against workers who work past the usual retirement age, the court held in Kentucky Retirement Systems et al. vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 06-1037.
Congress itself has “approved of programs that calculate permanent disability benefits using a formula that expressly takes account of age,” Justice Stephen Breyer writes in the court’s opinion on behalf of himself, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Clarence Thomas.
The Social Security Administration considers age when computing disability insurance benefits, and, until recently, the federal government included age in disability benefits calculations, Breyer writes.
In Kentucky, Breyer writes, “The whole purpose of the disability rules is, as Kentucky claims, to treat a disabled worker as though he had become disabled after, rather than before, he had become eligible for normal retirement benefits.”
Age comes into play only because the normal retirement rules take age into account, Breyer writes.
Kentucky Retirement Systems permits police officers, fire fighters and other workers in dangerous jobs to retire either after working for 20 years or after working for 5 years and then reaching age 55.
The plan also pays disability retirement benefits to some workers. It calculates normal retirement benefits based on actual years of service, and it calculates disability benefits by “adding to an employee’s actual years of service the number of years that the employee would have had to continue working to become eligible for normal retirement benefits, adding no more than the number of years the employee had previously worked,” according to the court’s summary of the decision.