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Age is just a number — unless you’re a judge in California

| May 22, 2019 | Employment Discrimination, Firm News |

These days, it’s more common than ever to hear the phrase, “Age is just a number!” People are living longer — and healthier — than ever before. Their work lives are also extended. Nobody thinks much of it anymore when someone — particularly a well-educated professional — is working well into their “golden years.”

Well, three retired California judges are taking exception to the fact that new rules used by the Assigned Judges Program are limiting how long they can work when they’re tapped to fill in an active judge’s seat in court. The program keeps the state’s 58 trial courts moving along despite leaves of absence by other judges for vacations, medical issues and family needs.

However, just last year, Chief Justice Tani Canti-Sakauye introduced limits that are designed to reduce spending and keep the court from using retired judges unnecessarily. However, the way the limits were imposed — a flat 1,320 days of employment (applied retroactively) — automatically creates a disparate impact on older judges who have already exceeded the limit.

In theory, the limits are a good thing. They came about after a whistleblower exposed some problems in the old system. In practice, the limit is depriving citizens of the most experienced judges available simply because they are the most experienced. They also happen to be the oldest.

The trio of retired judges who have brought suit against the chief justice and the Judicial Council of California says that the policy is illegal age discrimination. There’s a lot at stake for the judges who are now automatically cut out of the program. Assigned judges are paid a daily rate of $763.32 plus expenses — which can add up to some tidy sums over the course of a trial. Each of the three judges has earned more than $1 million in the years since their official retirement that way.

Attempts to resolve the issue without litigation weren’t successful. This case is a prime example of how a well-intentioned rule can have a disparate impact on a protected class of people that’s both unexpected and illegal. If you’re the victim of a policy that has a disparate and discriminatory impact on your work life, consider exploring your legal options.