Court Considers Right to Sue for Age Bias

Older Americans who believe they were illegally pressured out of their jobs because of their age may have a stake in a dispute argued yesterday before the Supreme Court.

The justices must decide whether workers who allege age bias can sue if they accepted - and refuse to surrender - a severance package.

The case is brought by Delores Oubre, who quit her job at Entergy Operation Inc.'s Waterford nuclear power plant at Taft, La., in 1995. Entergy, trying to shrink its work force, was offering buyouts to low-performance employees. Ms. Oubre had received a poor performance ranking and was told she soon could be fired without benefits.

Oubre, who had been working at the plant for 14 years, took a $6,258 severance package and signed an agreement promising not to sue. She was 41, the oldest person in her department and the only employee in her job classification to be dismissed. Convinced that age bias had been a motive, Oubre sued nine months after quitting.

Lower courts have ruled against her, deciding that she had ratified the signed release by refusing to return the severance benefits. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects employees over 40, says workers cannot waive their right to sue unless the waiver is "knowing and voluntary."

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