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Baltimore County agrees to pay $5.4 million to settle age discrimination pension case

Baltimore County has agreed to pay nearly $5.4 million to settle a federal lawsuit alleging employees were forced to overpay into the county’s pension system for years, ending years of litigation on the matter.

More 2,000 retirees will be reimbursed after the U.S. District Court in Maryland approved a joint consent order resolving the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s lawsuit against the county, according to an EEOC news release. The county previously estimated it could owe up to $19 million in the case.

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The federal lawsuit alleged Baltimore County “engaged in unlawful employment practices” because older workers were required to pay higher contributions than younger workers, according to the consent order. The case affects employees who were hired before 2007, when the county ended its decades-long practice of setting pension contribution rates for new hires based on an employee’s age.

Baltimore County spokesperson Sean Naron said in a statement that "the joint consent order has been filed, and the Court has entered an Order dismissing the matter. The County has no further comment.”

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The lawsuit has traveled back and forth within the federal court system since 2007, when two county correctional officers filed a complaint with the EEOC. The civil rights enforcement agency called the case, which alleged the county’s pension system violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, “one of the longest-running lawsuits on the EEOC’s docket.”

“We are pleased that thousands of retirees who overpaid for their pensions, some for many years, are finally being reimbursed,” EEOC supervisory trial attorney Maria Salacuse said in a statement. “We appreciate the willingness of the county and the trustees of the retirement system to bring this case to resolution.”

In 2012, the U.S. District Court granted partial summary judgment for the EEOC, ruling that the county’s pension plan was discriminatory and not justified by financial considerations, thus violating federal age discrimination laws. In 2014, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county had to compensate county workers who overpaid.

In 2016, the county and the EEOC resolved the federal agency’s claims, and the District Court determined no monetary relief was appropriate. However, in 2018, the 4th Circuit reversed the District Court order because “a retroactive monetary award of back pay under the [Age Discrimination in Employment Act] is mandatory upon a finding of liability.”

The county’s attorneys in December 2018 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In June, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case for the second time. The county previously petitioned the Supreme Court in 2014, after the county appealed the federal ruling that found the pension system was discriminatory.

In October, the District Court ruled the EEOC could recover back pay accruing between March 2006 and April 2016, for eligible class members.

“This case was important for the EEOC to bring. Only the EEOC can sue state and local governments under the [Age Discrimination in Employment Act], and thus this violation would have gone without remedy absent the EEOC’s lawsuit,” EEOC assistant general counsel Christopher Lage said in a statement. “The case also confirmed the important principle that back pay is a mandatory legal remedy under the ADEA.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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