The US Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether public university faculty staff can sue for age discrimination in a case involving more than 30 professors in Florida and Alabama.
Lower courts have ruled that state agencies, including public colleges and universities, cannot be sued for age discrimination under federal law because of a constitutional provision that gives states protection against certain kinds of lawsuits.
A decision in the case will not only affect the rights of older faculty, but also the degree to which states are exempt from some federal laws, a major area of dispute throughout US history.
Two years ago the Supreme Court reaffirmed that states are generally immune from being sued under federal law. But it also ruled that the exemption generally does not apply when the issue is discrimination.
Some lower federal courts have said that federal laws against age discrimination cannot be the subject of lawsuits against states or state agencies - most recently in cases brought by 35 faculty members at Florida State University and Florida International University, who said they were discriminated against because of their age when they received smaller salary increases than their younger colleagues.
Two associate professors at the University of Montevallo in Alabama have also said that they were discriminated against because of their age when salary raises and promotions were decided.
Robert Chanin, chief attorney for the National Education Association, the union that is paying for the lawsuit, said: "Higher education faculty should be able to look to the federal courts for protection against invidious age discrimination, and we are hopeful that the (Supreme) Court will agree."