updated 3/29/2004 11:15:58 AM ET 2004-03-29T16:15:58

The Supreme Court said Monday it would consider workplace protections for older employees, in a case that could make age bias suits tougher to prove.

Justices will take up an appeal from police officers in Mississippi's capital city to decide if older employees have rights similar to those of minorities when it comes to discrimination claims.

The court first agreed to consider the subject in another case involving fired Florida utility workers in late 2001, then backed out of that case without explanation.

The new case pits the city of Jackson, Miss., against officers over age 40 who contend they were harmed by a new pay policy. The officers lost in a lower court.

People over age 40 are protected from age bias at work, under a federal law.

The court will consider whether that 1967 law permits lawsuits on grounds that an employer's action has a disproportionate impact on older workers. Justices already have settled that impact suits are allowed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on a worker's sex, religion or race.

Thomas Goldstein, the Washington lawyer representing the officers, said that the two laws have the same wording, and the same purpose.

The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act covers about 70 million workers age 40 or older, nearly half the work force. The law bans different treatment for older workers just because of their age.

The officers had sued over a pay plan that they said gave larger increases to employees under age 40.

"Because the act covers so many employees, the question presented is of great importance to the national economy," Goldstein said in a filing.

Washington lawyer Glen Nager, representing the city of Jackson, agreed that courts around the country are divided over the standard for lawsuits.

"All parties to the litigation," he wrote, "are better served by obtaining final clarification from this court."

The case will be argued at the court next fall.

The case is Smith v. City of Jackson, Miss., 03-1160.

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