The combined effects of an aging population and a sluggish economy have led to an increase in lawsuits alleging age bias in the workplace. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination in the employment of persons who are at least 40 years old. The ADEA covers most private employers of 20 or more persons. It forbids age discrimination in advertising for employment, hiring, compensation, discharges, and other terms or conditions of employment. Retaliation against a person who opposes a practice made unlawful by the ADEA or who participates in a proceeding brought under the ADEA is a separate violation.
The ADEA takes into account that sometimes there is a correlation between age and ability to fulfill the requirements of a job, and that even older workers must comply with employers’ rules and requirements that have nothing to do with age. An employer does not violate the ADEA if it takes an otherwise prohibited action where age is a “bona fide occupational qualification” necessary to the operation of a particular business. Nor is it a violation to differentiate among employees based on reasonable factors other than age or to fire or discipline an employee for good cause.
Before suing in court, an aggrieved person first must allege unlawful discrimination in a charge filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then wait 60 days to allow the EEOC an opportunity to resolve the dispute informally before taking further legal action. Court remedies include injunctions (court orders stopping a discriminatory practice), compelled employment, promotions, reinstatement with back pay and lost benefits, and an award for attorney’s fees and costs of bringing the suit. If a court finds that an employer’s violation of the ADEA was willful, it may also award liquidated damages equal to the out-of-pocket monetary losses of the plaintiff.
It is not essential to an ADEA lawsuit that there be a “smoking gun” in the plaintiff’s favor in the form of derogatory age-based comments about older employees. In fact, remarks of that kind will not support liability if they have no connection to the challenged employment decision. In a recent lawsuit brought by an on-air television reporter who was fired, a boss’s comment that “old people should die” was an insignificant stray remark because it was made about the boss’s own father. On the other hand, it was very helpful to the plaintiff’s case that the same boss had stated repeatedly that she wanted to “go with a younger look” and she did not like having an older man appearing on the news.
Employers sometimes select older workers to be terminated as a money-saving measure, given their generally higher compensation and perhaps their being close to vested retirement benefits. There is no ADEA violation in a decision that treats employees differently because of something other than age, such as money. An employer will not be liable under the ADEA for terminating an employee solely to prevent his pension benefits from vesting. (That conduct might very well violate ERISA, however.) Such a scenario is distinguishable from situations in which employers face ADEA liability because they have made decisions based on the stereotype that productivity and competence always decline with old age.
Actual resolution of legal issues depends upon many factors, including variations of facts and state laws. This post is not intended to provide legal advice on specific subjects, but rather to provide insight into legal developments and issues. The reader should always consult with legal counsel before taking action on matters covered by this newsletter.