In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that Trans WorldAirlines (TWA) had discriminated against its older pilots by making itdifficult for them to move into flight engineers jobs when they reachedthe age 60 ceiling for pilots set by Federal law. The case, Trans WorldAirlines v. Thurston, had broad significance because several similardiscrimination suits were processed against several other airlines. Under TWA policy, pilots reaching age 60 could bid on flightengineers jobs, but were forced to retire if no such jobs wereavailable. In the opinion written by Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., theCourt said the policy was “discriminatory on its face” becausea pilot unable to fly for reasons other than age would have been givenanother job without having to bid or wait for it. In another important aspect of the ruling that has applicationsthroughout the economy, the Court held that double damages can beawarded in discrimination cases only if the employer acted in”reckless disregard” of antidiscrimination law.
Under Federallaw, double damages can be assessed if the violation is”willful,” which had been interpreted in a number of ways byFederal courts. In their arguments before the Supreme Court in the TWAcase, attorneys for the pilots had contended that double damages shouldapply if TWA was aware of the law and its provisions. This argument wasrejected by the Court, which said that such a standard “wouldresult in an award of double damages in almost every case.”Instead, the Court backed TWA’s argument by defining willfulconduct as occurring when an employer “knew or showed recklessdisregard for” whether its action was prohibited by Federal law.