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 the 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.
As a sales representative for a computer software company, Richard received an annual salary and sales commissions as determined by a compensation plan that was part of his contract. There was a specific formula for how commissions were to be calculated, but language in the plan gave the company broad authority to make a final decision about compensation and to change the plan at any time. For sales commissions, in particular, the employer reserved the right to review any transaction generating a commission beyond a salesman’s annual quota and to determine the “appropriate treatment” of it.
When Richard scored an especially large sale, the company decided that its “appropriate treatment” was to cap Richard’s commission at an amount that was less than he expected under the usual formula. The company’s position was that the large commission expected by Richard was not justified because it arose from a single transaction on which Richard had not done as much work as he claimed, and because he had only been employed by the company for eight months. Richard quit and sued for breach of contract.
A federal court ruled in favor of the employer. The language in the compensation plan was broad, but it was not ambiguous. The whole thrust of the document was to leave determination of the commissions to the employer’s discretion, notwithstanding that the plan identified some forms of appropriate treatment of commissions.
When a contract leaves a decision up to one party’s discretion, it is nearly unassailable in court. A court may intervene if that party is guilty of fraud, bad faith, or a grossly mistaken exercise of judgment, but Richard did not make those arguments. Despite the fact that it was arguably unfair, the court ruled that such a decision was “out of our reach.”