A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that Baltimore County discriminated against older employees when it required them to contribute more to their pensions than younger employees.
Since 2007, the county has battled a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of two retired corrections officers who said the pension system violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Monday's ruling by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirms a 2012 lower-court decision and could result in millions of dollars in damages.
"The plan treated older employees at the time of enrollment less favorably than younger employees because of their age," Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote in the appeals court decision.
The pension plan required that employees contribute at rates based on age regardless of whether they chose to retire at the set retirement age or after working a required number of years. That practice changed in 2007 to a flat rate regardless of age.
Baltimore County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz disagrees with the court's decision and is "reviewing its options." She declined to comment further.
A lower court will determine damages, according to the appeals court ruling.
In 2007, county officials estimated that damages could total $17 million to $19 million, and wrote in court documents that it could take at least two years to determine how much people are owed.
EEOC attorney David Lopez said the case had been a matter of "basic equal treatment."
"Certain older Baltimore County employees were forced to pay more for their pensions than younger co-workers. That's age discrimination, plain and simple," Lopez said in a statement.
In court documents, the commission had rejected the county's contention that determining damages would take a long time or incur great cost.
Lopez said, "I hope the parties can get on with that task quickly, so these older workers can finally have the justice and relief they deserve."
Contributions had been based on age since the county pension system began in 1945.
Employees could retire and receive pension benefits at age 65, no matter how many years they had worked. The thought was that older employees who enrolled in the plan should contribute a higher percentage of their salaries, because their contributions would earn interest for fewer years than younger employees' contributions.
As of 1973, employees had the option to retire with full benefits after 30 years of service, regardless of their age. However, "at no time were the contribution rates adjusted to take account of the early-retirement option," the judge wrote.