WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two former University of Minnesota broadcast technicians alleging age discrimination finally got their day in court Monday -- but only partially. The U.S. Supreme Court debated whether a federal law that gives people more time to pursue litigation against their states is constitutional.
"It was a very, very humbling experience walking in the courtroom -- I had tears in my eyes," said James Goodchild, who along with Lance Raygor, sued the university in 1994, claiming the school tried to force them to take early retirement when they were both 52.
At issue, however, was not the alleged age discrimination, but whether the men can go forward with their lawsuit. They initially filed in federal court; when the court dismissed the claims, they filed in state court, relying on a federal law that extends state statutes of limitations by 30 days after a federal court dismisses a state claim.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the law violated the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans people from pursuing claims against their own state in federal court. The University of Minnesota is a state school.
Several justices grilled the former employees' lawyer, Howard Bolter, on whether the law unfairly superseded the state time limit.
"It reconfigures the statute of limitations," said Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Bolter argued the law merely extends it while the federal claim is pending, but doesn't establish a new statue of limitations.
"It doesn't defeat the purpose of the statute of limitations, and the need to file on a timely basis -- that's the (state's) core interest," he said.
But Justice Antonin Scalia said if that were the case, states would say, " 'That's good enough for us.' But it's not good enough for a lot of states."
In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures filed a brief in support of the University of Minnesota.
The university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, declared the law "represents a blanket attempt by Congress to extend the statute of limitations."
But he came in for some aggressive questioning as well.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O'Connor wondered whether, under the university's argument, the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act would also be unconstitutional when the state was a defendant. That law allows people serving in the military to extend the time to file claims while they are serving and for 60 days after.
Rotenberg said that technically, states could claim the law is unconstitutional, but no state would ever do so.
Although the university is seeking to have the law ruled unconstitutional, Rotenberg said the school would be comfortable with an outcome favored by the Bush administration -- a ruling that the law does not apply to state defendants.
"There is no need for this court to make any significant case law," argued Paul Clement, deputy solicitor general for the U.S. Justice Department.
A decision in the case is expected in two to four months.
The university says it is prepared to defend itself if it loses the Supreme Court case and the decision goes to trial.
Raygor and Goodchild, now 59, claim that when they refused to retire, the university discriminated against them by demoting them, resulting in $15,000 salary reductions.
"We want to be able to get our case heard," said Raygor.
Rotenberg said that in the mid-1990s, the university's media resources unit had to be reconfigured because of budget cuts and changing times. The men's jobs changed consequently, he said, but there was no pressure for them to retire.
Raygor and Goodchild are seeking compensation for lost wages and emotional distress, which Bolter said could total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Both Raygor and Goodchild are on disability -- Raygor suffers from a heart condition and Goodchild from Crohn's Disease, according to Bolter.
Fred Frommer may be reached at ffrommer(at)ap.org.
On the Net:
University of Minnesota: http://www1.umn.edu/
Minnesota Supreme Court: http://www.courts.state.mn.us/scgroup.htm
U.S. Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/
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