An incentive designed to entice unionized state workers to take early retirement is causing continuing legal headaches, with the latest migraines striking Minnesota's departments of Commerce, Public Safety and Natural Resources.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed three nearly identical lawsuits in federal court Monday alleging that the agencies violated age discrimination laws when they signed collective bargaining agreements that included health and dental benefits for workers who retired at 55, but not for older workers.

The EEOC contends that such provisions are clear violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The EEOC tackled the issue in 2008 in a federal lawsuit it filed in St. Paul against the Minnesota Department of Corrections. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ordered the department to pay 36 retired workers back pay totaling $770,904, plus future premium costs of $530,363.

The Minnesota Law Enforcement Association, which represents the affected corrections employees, argued in an appeal that the so-called "age 55 cliff" was an allowable provision of its contract with the state.

But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Magnuson in an opinion issued last month, ruling that the provision was discriminatory on its face because it denied employees benefits based solely on their age.

While the appeal was pending, the EEOC negotiated a legal settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Services that required it to pay $467,000 to 29 people who were denied employer contributions for retiree health and dental insurance.

The consent decree, entered in April by U.S. District Judge David Doty, also requires the department to pay future premium costs for those still entitled to receive them.

Jean Kamp, an associate regional attorney for the EEOC who has worked on the lawsuits, said Monday that the latest batch affects perhaps just seven to 10 retirees. Although it's uncertain how much money might be at stake, it's likely to be a relatively small amount, she said.

"The first case was very important because it raised an important issue and we had a substantive disagreement with the state on it, which was litigated and involved a lot of people," Kamp said. She described the three lawsuits filed Monday as "wrapping up loose ends."

Kamp said an unknown number of retired workers in other agencies also "got relief" from the state without any further action by the EEOC.

"Nobody is challenging, at this point, that these people are entitled to benefits," Kamp said. "We expect these [new] cases will settle."

Kamp said additional lawsuits involving other state agencies may follow, however. Although the state seems to be make a good-faith effort to find people who were entitled to the benefits but didn't receive them, she said, "I think it's turning out to be more difficult than anyone expected."

The state has a lot of unions with different bargaining agreements to sort through, Kamp noted.

Anne Barry, deputy commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said after the agreement with the EEOC was reached that the state has already taken steps to rectify the contractual language.

Scott Pengelly, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said the agency hasn't seen the EEOC's lawsuit and therefore can't comment on it.

John Reich, spokesman for the Department of Commerce, said the agency will respond in court.

The Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment.

Star Tribune staff writer David Chanen contributed to this report. Dan Browning • 612-673-4493