Employee Rights Short Takes: Age Discrimination Cases In The News

Here are two Short Takes about some interesting age discrimination cases that made the news this month:

Forced Retirement At Age 70 Is Illegal

Nini v. Mercer County Community College: Rose Nini was a Dean at Mercer Community College from 1982 until 2005 when her contract expired and was not renewed. She was 73 years old at the time.

According to Nini, the college President, Dr. Robert Rose:

  • complimented her on her performance but “made it very clear to [her] that he thought [she] had no right to be working at [her] age”
  • said that employees of her age were considering retirement and suggested she should consider taking early retirement too
  •  told her that people who have been in a job for twenty-five years "lose their effectiveness." 
  • told her that it was her last chance to get an early retirement and leave with dignity.
  • held meetings with department heads in which he made jokes about getting rid of older employees
  • held meetings where several people discussed “age and incompetence and being dead wood”

Nini also stated that she heard from another employee that College Human Relations Director Vanessa Wilson said the College had to "get rid of old-timers and bring in new blood."

The lower court granted judgment in favor of the college holding that the college did not violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination because the statute allows an employer to refuse to renew an employment contract of an employee over seventy years of age. The Court of Appeals reversed and the the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed in an opinion issued on June 1st holding that refusing to renew contracts for employees over the age of 70 because of their age violates the New Jersey’s age discrimination laws.

In other words, the failure to renew a contract because of age is equivalent to a termination -- not a failure to hire --according to the New Jersey Supreme Court. This case is good news for the many employees who are employed with contracts that are renewed year to year, or at the end of a certain term, particularly in states with statutory exceptions in discrimination laws similar to New Jersey’s.

Employees Replaced By Younger Individuals Can Prove Age Discrimination In Workforce Reduction Case

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Tin, Inc.:  The EEOC announced last week that Tin, Inc., a manufacturing plant in Glendale, Arizona will pay $250,000 to settle a discrimination case filed by three employees who claimed they were fired because of their age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.(ADEA).

The settlement follows a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in October that reversed summary judgment in favor of Tin and sent the case back to the district Court for trial.

According to the opinion, one of the plaintiffs, Neal, was replaced by an individual 15 years younger as plant manager. The EEOC provided evidence that Neal never received a negative performance review and in fact was told by his supervisors that they were satisfied with his performance.

The company contended that Neal’s younger replacement was better qualified because a facility he had run was profitable.

Interestingly, the Court stated that “the fact that a facility was profitable under one manager and not another does not mean that the two managers qualifications differed.” In addition, according to the Court, there was little evidence of the replacement's success at the plants in question. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held, the district court erred in granting summary judgment against Neal since material facts were in dispute.

The other two plaintiffs, McGraw and Vanecko, positions were terminated because their positions were eliminated according to Tin.  In order to establish an inference of discrimination in this type of case, the Court stated,  the plaintiff is entitled to show “that the employer had a continuing need for the employee’s skills and services in that his various duties were still being performed.”

The evidence showed that McGraw’s logistics manager duties were redistributed to the production manger and sales manager who were 20 and 23 years younger. It also showed that  Vanecko’ s plant controller duties were given to someone 24 years younger.

In addition, the EEOC presented evidence that the two supervisors with decision making authority over all three plaintiffs made comments from which a jury could find “that they harbored animus towards older workers.” Therefore, the Court concluded that the EEOC provided sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that age was the “but –for” cause of the terminations.

The opinion helps explain the kind of evidence that is useful in proving age discrimination in the often difficult cases of job elimination and workforce reduction.

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