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Baltimore Co. loses bid to narrow class entitled to back pay in lawsuit

Baltimore County’s bid to narrow the class of county employees entitled to damages in an age discrimination case was rejected by a federal judge Monday, making some 12,000 pension beneficiaries eligible for relief.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that back pay was mandatory under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, capping more than a decade of litigation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the county’s pension program that had higher contribution rates for employees 40 and older.

The county changed its policy in 2007 and employees hired after the change paid the same rate regardless of age. The parties and unions involved agreed to a plan in 2016 that gradually equalized contribution rates for those on the old plan, but the EEOC pursued damages for the employees affected.

After the Supreme Court declined to review the 4th Circuit’s opinion, the case returned to U.S. District Court, where the parties filed motions regarding the scope of the class affected.

Judge Richard D. Bennett held a hearing Oct. 16 and issued an opinion Monday. Bennett determined the EEOC can pursue relief that accrued between March 6, 2006, and April 26, 2016, the date when the court approved the plan to gradually equalize contribution rates but will allow the commission to argue for back pay through the end of 2018 if evidence supports it later.

Bennett said it “appears grossly unfair to hold the County liable for back pay accruing during the implementation of a plan agreed to by all parties,” but he said he would permit discovery for an alternate back pay period ending on Jan. 1, 2019 — the date the pension rates were equalized — and allow the parties to submit motions, either ruling on summary judgment or sending the case to a jury.

Bennett also ruled the class is not limited by the EEOC’s initial definition of an aggrieved individual, which was narrower. The county raised the issue last month in a filing with the court, arguing that the EEOC pursued damages on behalf of a broader class but did not go through the conciliation process with the county on those terms.

But Bennett said the county “waived arguments concerning the EEOC charge and conciliation efforts by posing them thirteen years after this case commenced.” He also called the arguments “meritless.”

The class of employees entitled to back pay will be defined as plan members hired before July 1, 2017, who were active between March 6, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2018, and were at least 40 years of age at some point after March 6, 2006.

The county has not made any recent estimates about the potential cost but claimed in its petition to the Supreme Court that the 4th Circuit’s decision failed to “recognize the havoc it will cause to the County’s pension plan administrators.”

A spokesman from Baltimore County declined to comment Tuesday.

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Baltimore County, 1:07-cv-02500.

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